BRADENTON, Fla. -- Eliseo Ortiz came to Sister Nora Brick's trailer on Valentine's Day, a logical choice for someone who wanted help calling his mother in Mexico.
The Irish nun's compassion for people in need is legend in Manatee County, Fla. "She has such a big heart, it makes her extremely vulnerable," said Jeff Belvo, a VISTA volunteer at the nun's Stillpoint House of Prayer. "She puts herself in harm's way."
Sadly, that was the case Monday.
The Valentine's Day gesture by Ortiz, 51, was apparently a ploy.
"I called the number for him," Sister Nora said Tuesday from her hospital bed at Manatee Memorial Hospital. "I tried it twice, but the number he'd given me was gibberish.
"What he really wanted was money, and when he realized I wasn't going to give him any, he got angry."
Ortiz repaid the 81-year-old nun's kindness with a beating, detectives say, that blackened both her eyes, broke her nose and left her with a concussion and cuts on her forehead.
"It looks like she went through 15 rounds with a heavyweight fighter," said Don Gaudette, office manager for Sister Nora's Stillpoint House of Prayer.
The nun, beloved for her work in the migrant community, withstood the attack as best she could.
"I prayed and prayed and prayed," she said. "I've been through a battle."
According to a hospital official, Sister Nora is in fair condition. She expects to remain hospitalized until Saturday.
"At her age to have gone through trauma like that is a difficult thing," said hospital Vice President Vernon DeSear. "She's as sweet and caring even now going through this. She's well loved and appreciated by so many in the community who she's helped, and we will look after her."
Ortiz was still being sought Tuesday on a charge of aggravated battery.
"We're out looking now," said sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow. "He's homeless, so he could be anywhere, but we're looking in that corridor, working with people over there."
Ortiz is a familiar face to Sister Nora and volunteers at Stillpoint. Sometimes he helped out, carrying boxes of donated food for needy migrant families who come there. Other times, he created problems stemming from substance abuse, other volunteers said Tuesday.
"When he's not high, he's a good guy, but we had a confrontation two weeks ago and asked him not to come back," said Jeff Belvo, a VISTA volunteer. "We had to call police."
Sister Nora, whose nature is to see the good in everybody, had to throw him out again last Friday.
"She trusted him, but I knew he was trouble," volunteer Ernie Bigelow said. "He'd been stealing, but we could never catch him red-handed. Once we got rid of him, the stealing stopped."
The attack on Sister Nora stunned volunteers at Stillpoint, where a dry erase board still bore the words "Happy Valentine's Day" the nun had penned.
"It breaks my heart," Dolly Housinga said. "I can't believe it. She is a very good Christian lady. Why would anybody beat her up?"
"I was shocked that anybody could be so mean, so unkind as to beat up a nun," Irene Pleasure said. "She is such a lovable, wonderful person who would never hurt anybody."
Gaudette recalled watching the diminutive nun stand up to troublemakers before.
"I've seen her go up to guys twice her size and say, 'You're not supposed to drink and do this or that,' and they lower their heads in her presence and go, 'Si, Madre,"' he said.
"Because of her position of being a nun, a person of faith, they respect her so much. I didn't think anyone could do that to her."
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