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. Forecast: Sunny skies, drier air dominate throughout Tampa Bay region


    Drier air continues to filter into the Tampa Bay area on Tuesday, with clear skies and a slight chance of light rain during the afternoon.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  2. Florida education news: Makeup days, graduation honors, sex education and more


    MAKEUP DAYS: Hillsborough County schools will eliminate four early release days to meet minimum state time per course, after missing seven days because of Hurricane Irma. • Indian …

    School classrooms are back up and running after Hurricane Irma. Districts are now setting makeup schedules for time missed.
  3. Rick and Tom podcast: Bucs' Gerald McCoy frustrated with disrespectful fans


    Rick Stroud and Tom Jones discuss Gerald McCoy's latest comments on disrespectful fans who attack his teammates, Donald Trump, protests by DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, and his respect for the …

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) warms up before an NFL game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.
  4. Tampa heading into several tough budget years

    Local Government

    TAMPA — Less pain now, more pain later.

    The Tampa City Council will hold a final public hearing on the proposed 2018 city budget and property tax rate at 5 p.m. Thursday on the third floor of Old City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.
  5. The Daystarter: Rick vs. Rick 2.0 tonight; Bucs' McCoy says some fans cross line; Trump associate to testify; helicopter crashes onto Odessa roof


    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.


    Rescuers respond to a crash of a small helicopter on the roof of a home in the Odessa area on Monday. [Hillsborough County Fire Rescue]