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Carlton: The remarkable life of Sister Maureen

Sister Maureen Dorr touches the face of Juan Rodriguez, a man who came to eat at Trinity Cafe in Tampa, where she volunteered. Sister Maureen was known for remembering people’s names — and dancing.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

Weekdays, the street-worn men and women pushed through the doors to Trinity Cafe at the edge of downtown Tampa, into the warm smells of good soup, meat and vegetables, for some of them the day's only real meal. Nearly always, Sister Maureen was there greeting them, touching an arm and asking how someone was doing, knowing their names and their stories.

She was Sister Maureen Dorr, though I don't remember anyone saying her last name, just Sister Maureen. I met her when I was writing about this remarkable cafe that serves sit-down meals to anyone hungry, sometimes 300 in a single lunch. You couldn't miss how she looked into their faces, how she did not shy from hugging anyone.

"When she talked with you," Trinity's program director Cindy Davis said this week, "it was like you were the only person in the world at the moment."

Tall and thin in her apron, she moved through the hardscrabble crowd like some kind of light, a cap of gray hair in a sea of people, stopping here and there to deliver silverware, pour iced tea, bend her head for a quiet talk or take someone's face in her hands.

And sometimes, when whatever easy-listening music playing in the cafe so moved her, Sister Maureen would take the hand of one of the men. "Handsome" she called them, no matter if they were dirty or disheveled. There in the dining room, they would dance.

Whenever I went by Trinity, Sister Maureen had thoughts for newspaper stories that would do some good in the world, or at least the immediate vicinity. It's hard to deny the existence of truly good people when the evidence takes your hand and looks you in the eye.

"Cheerio," she would say in lieu of goodbye.

She was a nun for 66 of her 85 years, a teacher and a principal with a master's degree in sacred doctrine. It's pretty laughable to call her last years "retirement:" four weekdays at Trinity and a fifth with inmates at the Hillsborough County jails.

A homeless man named Douglas Fletcher told me this week how over the years Sister Maureen visited him in jail, how she prayed for his mother when she had a stroke, how she knew the names of people on the streets even when he didn't. "Sister Maureen was family to people who didn't have a family," he said.

"I just go up and down the street and talk with them and ask how they are doing," she told the Times a few years ago. "Some want you to pray with them and I do that. Some just want a blessing, some just want a hello and a smile. That I can do."

She was also proudly Irish and "the epitome of tough love," Davis said. You explained your actions to Sister Maureen.

Some days when she got to the jail, the list of inmates wanting to see her could be 10 long. When they got out — her "graduates," Sister Maureen called them — she handed out bus passes so they could at least get a meal at Trinity.

"That's what Sister Maureen was about, making sure they knew God loved them," said Evelyn Lopez, a jail chaplain. "No matter what. She wanted better for them." You would see her talking closely with burly jail deputies and jail staff, too.

When she got sick with cancer, she was still calling the chaplain from her hospital bed about this inmate or that one. Could you go see her, Sister Maureen would ask, and let her know I'm praying for her?

"She never stopped," Lopez said.

On a sunny day in July, she was determined to make one last trip to Trinity, refusing a wheelchair but agreeing to a walker. As the car door opened to let her out, the crowd waiting for lunch, shouldering their backpacks and the lives that brought them here, erupted in applause. Sister Maureen was here.

Last week she died at St. Elizabeth Motherhouse in Allegany, N.Y. A priest and several sisters surrounded her bed to sing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, I'm told. People who loved Sister Maureen say she would have loved that.

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