Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Ellen Sullivan Williams

Flowers helped Irish native Ellen Sullivan Williams set roots in Tampa

TAMPA — Ellen Sullivan Williams did not live in a greenhouse. Life was not easy. Her only son, Daniel, died young. Her marriage failed. She lived alone, an ocean away from family and her Irish homeland.

But even through tears, she grew flowers.

Her fingers were always in soil. Plants sprouted in her bathroom and turned hardy on her patio and then bloomed at the homes of her South Tampa friends.

"A beautiful Christmas cactus," says Mary Skok.

"A cutting of jade," says Odile DeCambra.

"Plumeria," says Rosalie Baya.

The best blooms, she saved for God. For decades, Mrs. Williams arranged flowers for the altar at St. Patrick Catholic Church, a skill she learned from a book.

She had her own key to the church. She would slip in unnoticed, sometimes, to tidy the sanctuary and rotate arrangements. If a plant looked sickly, she took it home for a rest, rarely granting herself the same.

She climbed church ladders into the night, falling more than once and even breaking bones but always returning.

"I yelled at her one time, 'What are you doing up on the ladder at your age?' " the Rev. Angelus Migliore says affectionately. "She was a good 80 years old and didn't belong on the ladder."

She was born Ellen O'Sullivan in Drinagh, County Cork, Ireland, on Feb. 23, 1923, one of 10 children.

A nurse, she tended the wounded of World War II in England before moving to Boston and then Tampa. She worked at St. Joseph's Hospital, then took on private-duty jobs. That was when she began bringing flowers and plants into the homes of patients.

"She used to bring my mother roses every single day," says Jan Wynne of Tampa, daughter of one patient. "There were roses in my mother's apartment from one end to the other."

Her neighbors got plants, too, though in Mrs. Williams' eyes, it was a collection permanently on loan. She would spot a droopy leaf and, like a state social worker, seize custody, intervening before things got out of hand.

"I'll make you some babies out of it," she'd say.

She would preach the virtues of watering.

Once, she wired silk blossoms onto a friend's anemic gardenia bush to make a point.

She often flipped through plant catalogs, finding new varieties to order.

Summers, she traveled to Ireland. She always came home talking about her sister's garden.

Relatives there hoped she would move back. But Mrs. Williams had long since grafted herself to her Tampa friends and church community.

She died a week ago. She went into a hospital for surgery on her elbow but suffered complications that included kidney failure.

Three nephews flew in from Ireland for the services.

They joined friends who numbered nearly 100.

The flowers, too, arrived.

Pink Sophie roses. Gladiolas. White orchids. Hydrangeas. Waxflower. Queen Anne's Lace. Pink snapdragons.

This time, all of them for Ellen Williams.

Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan or (813) 226-3382.


Ellen Sullivan Williams

Born: Feb. 23, 1923.

Died: April 17, 2009.

Survivors: sister, Joan O'Sullivan; brother, Pat O'Sullivan, both of Ireland.

Flowers helped Irish native Ellen Sullivan Williams set roots in Tampa 04/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 23, 2009 11:02pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Hillsborough approves miniscule cut to property tax rate, give $2 million to bus system


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioners on Thursday approved a decrease in the property tax rate for next year that will save most homeowners a little pocket change.

    Passengers are seen near a bus at Westfield-Brandon Transit Center Thursday, July 13 in Brandon. On Thursday, commissioners approved a $2 million one-time payment for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times
  2. 5 things to know before Tampa Bay Comic Con this weekend


    Tampa Bay Comic Con returns to the Tampa Convention Center this weekend, expected to attract more than 55,000 like-minded nerds mingling with cosplayers, celebrities, artists and sellers of comic books and collectibles.

    Surrounded by the bridesmaids dressed as Disney princesses and groomsmen dressed as Marvel superheroes, Gwen Walter of Venice, Fla., kisses her husband, Shawn Walter, also of Venice, after their wedding ceremony on day two of the 2016 Tampa Bay Comic Con in the Tampa Convention Center on August 6, 2016. The pair got engaged at Megacon 2015 and were married wearing "Nightmare Before Christmas"-themed costumes. Two different couples were married in Room 24 on the second day of the Tampa Bay Comic Con 2016. ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times
  3. Baker releases endorsement of 40 Midtown pastors


    Rick Baker announced Thursday that he has the support of 40 Midtown pastors and religious leaders, evidence he says of his "overwhelming support" in a crucial part of the city.

  4. A Taste of Tampa Bay: Noble Crust in St. Petersburg

    Food & Dining

    Noble Crust opened on north 4th Street in St. Petersburg, an area light on ambitious restaurants, in 2015. Chef Rob Reinsmith and his team are serving up a blend of southern cuisine and Italian-style cooking, including the restaurant's signature fried chicken. The Noble Crust brand recently expanded beyond its St. …

    Pizza at Noble Crust. [Photo by MONICA HERNDON | TIMES]
  5. HomeTeam 100: Players 11-20


     Rising senior DE/TE Judge Culpepper (right) tackles OL Bryce Love during practice at Plant High School in Tampa, on Tuesday May 2, 2017.