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Sister Cathy Gorman, a 'fierce warrior' for Apopka farmworkers, dies

For nearly four decades, Sister Cathy Gorman gave her heart to the people of Apopka, working tirelessly for migrant farmworkers and their families and eventually for anyone who was poor, disenfranchised or struggling. But Tuesday evening, the heart of the 65-year-old nun gave out, two months before her scheduled retirement party.

She had spent the final four years of her life in a wheelchair battling a series of health problems she rarely talked about. But her many friends said she fought to the end for social justice and compassion.

"She was a fierce warrior," said Sister Ann Kendrick, who came with Gorman in 1971 to what was then a small farming community. "She had amazing resilience, and she would just keep charging ahead. In terms of her health, that wasn't always a good thing."

Word of her passing spread quickly through the Latino community she had come to love and among the high school students she often counseled. Postings began on Facebook and MySpace even as Gorman was hospitalized Sunday night, and dozens of admirers gathered around her bed in the final two days.

"I can't believe she's gone," said 17-year-old Ivon Hernandez, who joined the Madres Jovenes (Young Mothers) group Gorman helped start for teen moms and mothers-to-be. "She let us know that, just because we became pregnant young, that didn't mean we couldn't achieve the things that other people did. She let us know we were important. And she was always there for us."

Since her arrival in Apopka from Baltimore, where she had been teaching at an inner-city school, Gorman's work with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur has touched thousands of lives in Central Florida. She and Kendrick had both answered a plea from the Orlando diocese to help the migrant workers, who at the time lived in miserable work camps and had few protections from abuse.

To understand their new world, the 20-something women worked for a time alongside the laborers in the fields, then helped launch the Office for Farmworker Ministry. Later they would help create a medical clinic, a food co-op, credit union, AIDS outreach program and low-income housing program. And in 2007, Gorman's dream — the $1.7 million Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka — finally opened after years of her lobbying and fundraising.

In 2008, the Apopka nuns were named "Central Floridians of the Year" by the Orlando Sentinel for their decades of work.

Gorman's death came almost four years to the day after she first suffered heart complications. A Type I diabetic since she was a teenager, Gorman was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in early 2006 and underwent quintuple bypass surgery, followed by months of recuperation.

"Apparently God just wanted me to slow down," she said that summer, having cut back her marathon workweeks to 20 or 30 hours. But that September she was involved in a serious car crash — the result of an insulin reaction — and spent another five months in the hospital. Subsequent infections led to doctors having to amputate her left leg and remove part of her intestines. Although she labored through intensive physical therapy, she never learned to walk with her prosthetic leg.

Instead of making her question her faith, the ordeal only strengthened it.

"She always believed you do the best you can with the cards you're dealt," said her sister, Maryanne Geraghty, 59, of Delaware. "There were no pity parties."

Geraghty remembers her big sister always wanting to join the convent. As a child in New York, Gorman would fashion her father's handkerchief and mother's scarf into a habit and play teacher — using a clothespin to mimic the clickers that Catholic-school nuns often carried to admonish unruly students.

But shortly after she joined the convent, Gorman began suffering from diabetes and lapsed into a coma at one point. There was debate about whether she would be allowed to continue her work.

Her father argued on her behalf — and won. Like him, she wasn't afraid to rock the boat.

In fact, whether it was learning about Buddhist meditation or teaching herself Spanish or Creole, Gorman was famous for forging her own path, even when it was difficult. She was relentless in pushing potential donors to support the community and had no patience for social injustice.

"She would love you no matter who you are," said Haitian-born Luckner Millien, who began working with Gorman as part of the Farmworker Association of Florida in 1982. "She believed no matter who you are, you should be treated with decency. Personally, I considered her my mentor."

Nilka Melendez, 52, coordinator of the Sin Fronteras (Without Limits) youth group with which Gorman worked as an adviser, said the 70 students who participate are devastated by the loss.

"Today when I went to the school, nobody talked," she said. "They only cried."

But Sister Teresa McElwee, who joined the Apopka group in 1973, said there is comfort in knowing that Gorman no longer is suffering.

"She finally got her other leg back," McElwee said, "and right now she is dancing in heaven."

A mass in Gorman's memory will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 16 at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Apopka, with a reception in the hall afterward. A second mass will be held in Wilmington, Del., on Jan. 30, near her sister's home. In addition to Geraghty, Gorman is survived by three nieces and nephews and six grandnieces and grandnephews.

Kate Santich can be reached at 407-420-5503 or ksantich@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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