LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Della Reese, the actress and gospel-influenced singer who in middle age found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running television drama “Touched by an Angel,” has died at age 86.

Reese’s co-star on the series, Roma Downey, said in a statement that the actress died peacefully Sunday evening in her home in the Los Angeles area. No further details were included.

Before “Touched by an Angel” debuted in 1994 and ran through 2004, Reese was mainly known as a singer, although she had costarred on “Chico and the Man,” ″Charlie and Company” and “The Royal Family” and hosted her own talk show, “Della.”

“Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people. She was a mother to me and I had the privilege of working with her side by side for so many years on ‘Touched By An Angel,’” Roma Downey wrote in a statement. “I know heaven has a brand new angel this day.”

She had been ordained by the Chicago-based Universal Foundation for Better Living, and when co-star Downey got married, Reese performed the ceremony.

Reese’s singing career also began in church, when she joined the junior gospel choir at the Olivet Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit. She graduated from Cass Technical High School, which boasts other famous alum including Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin and Ellen Burstyn. 

Soon she was singing at other churches, at civic events and on the radio. When Mahalia Jackson, known as The Queen of Gospel Music, came to Detroit, she needed a singer to replace a member of her troupe. She turned to Reese, who was only 13.

Jackson was so impressed by the teenager’s voice that she enlisted her for a summer tour, and Reese went on to tour with her for five summers. In later years she would remark that she would never forget what she learned from the legendary gospel singer, including “how to communicate with people through song.”

Reese is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, and three children.

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