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 @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3382.