Roma Downey Remembers Her Real-Life Angel, Della Reese

The actress reveals how she came to understand that she and Della Reese were brought together just when they needed each other most.

- Posted on Feb 26, 2018

Touched by an Angel stars Roma Downey and Della Reese

I first met Della Reese on the set where we were filming the pilot for the TV series Touched by an Angel. I had already gone through hair and makeup and taped a few scenes. But I was eager to meet the woman who would be my counterpart on the show. I heard that Miss Della Reese had arrived. I went back to the makeup trailer, and there she was. I reached out my hand and said, “I wanted to introduce myself.”

Della stood and said, “Oh, baby, I don’t shake hands. I hug.” And she wrapped me in the biggest embrace.

We were an unlikely duo—an earthy jazz and gospel singer from Detroit, Michigan, and a soft-spoken actress from Ireland. Still, we hit it off immediately, talking about our lives, our challenges and our faith.

Deep within me, there lived a little girl still longing for a mother. I was not quite 11 when my mother died. For me, it was as if the lights had been turned out and all the color of life removed. She was the center of my world, and then in an instant she was gone. No more Mom waiting for me at the end of a day, no more songs as I fell asleep, no more holding hands with her and running in the rain.

I had been searching for the kind, tender, unconditional love that only a mother can give. I found that in Della. The chemistry that we shared offscreen was very present in our relationship onscreen. Della, like her character Tess, was the older, wiser, tougher angel. Fiercely protective. My character depended on her.

During the years of making Touched by an Angel in Salt Lake City, I often went to Primary Children’s Hospital to visit the kids there. Once, around Christmas, I saw a family coming out of one of the rooms. There was no question what they had experienced. You could feel the grief gust down the hall. The mother looked at me and gasped.

“Monica,” she said. “I prayed an angel would come for my baby. Here you are.”

I stiffened. Monica was the angel I played on television. I was just Roma. I wasn’t an angel! I didn’t know what to say. I just held this grieving woman and prayed with her.

Later, I called Della. “I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid to appear to be something I’m not.”

“Baby, I don’t understand what you’re so upset about.”

“She thought God had sent an angel.”

Della replied, “And who said he didn’t?” She paused. “That woman didn’t need an actress, baby. She needed an angel. And if we are going to be used in this series for his highest good, then we need to get out of the way.”

Della was the first person I called whenever I needed anything, and I only hoped I could be that for her. One day, I was rehearsing a scene when I heard a commotion offset. Someone rushed up and said, “Roma, Della needs you.”

I ran to her trailer. She was crying, incoherent. I tried to calm her down. “She’s gone, she’s gone,” she cried out.

I managed to piece together that Della’s only daughter had died very suddenly. As with my mother’s death, there was no warning, no chance to prepare.

I knew Della needed to get home to Los Angeles to her husband, Franklin. We rushed to a car to head to the airport. I rolled down the window and called to a production assistant, “Please have someone grab my purse and some shoes and bring them to the airport.” I was still in my white angel costume with no shoes on.

Della looked at me sadly and took my hand in hers. “I don’t want to talk.” She gazed out the window.

“That’s okay,” I said.

At the airport, the assistant brought me my purse, ID and shoes. I bought tickets for Della and me. I didn’t want her to have to talk to anyone. I was like a guard dog, protecting my mama.

There was a moment during the flight when she finally fell asleep and I could feel the tension leave her body. I squeezed her hand and prayed that God would give her strength and comfort.

In L.A., I walked her down the jetway to the gate. Franklin was waiting. “Daddy,” she said and fell into his arms. My job was done. A few months later, Della and I were taking a walk on the beach. She looked out at the ocean and said, “God is wonderful, isn’t he?” I nodded. “Really, baby, I did not know until now how wonderful he is. You see, he brought me into your life because you needed a mama, didn’t he?” I nodded. “But, baby,” she said softly, “I didn’t know he was bringing you into my life because I was going to need a baby girl....”

We became inseparable. She was my daughter Reilly’s godmother. At the christening, she lifted my baby heavenward and said, “As long as there is breath in my body, I will always stand up for this child.” She was present for every milestone, and last November I was able to be present for her at the end.

For those last two weeks, I visited her at home on hospice care. She didn’t speak, but I held her hand as I had on that plane ride to L.A. I thought of how my mother would sing me her favorite song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel. How similar the words were to the song Della sang at the beginning of each Touched by an Angel: “When you walk from this place / And you gotta go to meet Him face-to-face / Take my hand and I will walk with you….”

She did, I did, we did to the end.

Adapted from Box of Butterflies by Roma Downey, published by Howard Books.

Read Della Reese's own faith story.

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