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Published Sep. 11, 2009

It may have been mere chance. Then again, it may have been something much grander than that.

But for some reason, back in the 1930s, a young woman named Mary Elizabeth Frese became friends with a group of Franciscan nuns who worked at St. Joseph Hospital in Tampa.

It didn't take long for her to realize that she wanted to be a nun herself, and specifically a member of Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y. She joined the order in 1938, taking the name Sister Marie Josephine Frese, and remained a member until her death Sept. 4, just eight days short of her 91st birthday.

She loved the sisterhood, family members said. No one who knew her doubted that she had been put on earth to become a nun.

"She was the epitome of what people think a nun should be," said her niece, Charlotte Grillo. "She was so kind and giving."

But she didn't fit the cliched image of a stern and serious nun, Grillo said.

"She always, always, always had a smile on her face, and she loved to laugh," Grillo said. "And she loved parties."

Sister Marie Josephine was born and raised in Ybor City. Her mother was a German immigrant, her father a first-generation German-American.

Her early life centered on her family, which was large and colorful. Her father refused to have the family home hooked up to public water or gas lines. The family cooked on a wood-burning stove and got water from a well. Sister Marie Josephine's father built a windmill that became a local landmark, and it pumped water into a holding tank in the yard.

The entire family was devoutly Catholic, and in addition, her older sister had wanted to become a nun. "She told me that she had always wanted to be a nun, but she had to help support the family," said another niece, Marie McGillivray, the daughter of that older sister. "So she went to work, and Auntie Sister was the one who became a nun."

"Auntie Sister" was what her nieces and nephews affectionately called her. Even though she was geographically separated from the family, who remained in Tampa, everyone considered her the center of the family.

"She was like glue," McGillivray said. "She was the one who held the family together."

Sister Marie Josephine got one vacation a year, and every single year, she came back to Tampa to see her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. Her visits were always a highlight of the year for the entire family, McGillivray said.

Sister Marie Josephine had joined her order shortly after high school and went to the mother house in Allegany, N.Y. The order sent her to St. Bonaventure University, where she earned a degree in biology. She spent much of her working life running the laboratory at St. Francis Hospital in Olean, N.Y.

When she retired, she came back to Tampa, and lived her remaining years at St. Elizabeth's Convent. Even though she was retired, she continued to perform volunteer work. She also drove her fellow nuns to appointments.

"She was the driver until she was 89 or 90," Grillo said. "Then one day she just said, 'Well, I think it's time to hang up the keys,' and she didn't drive again."

She was in good health until just a few weeks ago and continued her hobby of creating detailed needlework for her family. Whether she was knitting a blanket or making an intricate and artistic piece of embroidery, the finished product was stunning.More often than not, she gave it to a member of the family.

"Oh, my goodness, her needlework was gorgeous," McGillivray said. "Everything was perfect, down to the tiniest detail. That was the way she was. Everything she did, she did perfectly."

Sister Marie Josephine is survived by her brother Karl Frese and numerous nieces and nephews.

Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at