For those who knew her, Sister Edith Gonzalez was much more than a spiritual leader.
The people whose lives she touched describe her as a dear friend, a mother figure and a confidante. She devoted her life to working with the perpetually underrepresented — children, AIDS patients, refugees, the impoverished in need of health care and the developmentally disabled.
After nearly half a century of caring for the sick and the poor, on Friday night Gonzalez lost a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 69 years old.
“I’m not trying to say she was a saint, because she would be the first person to say she wasn’t a saint,” said Shed Boren, a social worker who knew Gonzalez for more than 20 years.
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But she was one of the most compassionate and least judgmental people he’s ever known, Boren said.
“She represented the beauty of God’s love.”
Edith Carmen Gonzalez, was born on Sept. 20, 1943 in Key West. Her parents, Edward and Paula Oliveros Gonzalez, originally from Cuba, moved the family to Miami while Gonzalez was in high school at Immaculata Academy. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and a master’s degree in special education from Barry University.
While continuing her religious studies, Gonzalez spent five years in Italy working with the developmentally disabled.
In 1987, she became a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St.Joseph of St. Augustine. She later taught at St. Mary’s Cathedral School in Miami.
After receiving clinical training in Houston, Gonzalez returned to Miami to serve as director of pastoral care at Mercy Hospital. She was instrumental in developing the AIDS program there during the early 1990s, which became one of the largest and most successful private AIDS programs in the country.
She also brought the Legacy Institute to Mercy Hospital, a program that trains spiritual health care professionals to care for the underrepresented in a faithful environment. The Mercy program will be named after her.
Gonzalez also worked with addiction recovery programs, impoverished families in Guatemala, Camillus House and San Juan Bosco Medical Clinic for the underprivileged.
“You name it, she was involved with it, but in a quiet, humble way,” Boren said.
Gonzalez was known for her infinite compassion and objectivity.
Her thoughtfulness and intellect had an impact on Mercy Hospital gastroenterologist Dr. Joe Greer, he said.
“She understood people and she accepted people — all people, regardless of anything,” said Greer, who first met Gonzalez around 1990.
She was deeply intellectual and thoughtful in her counsel when dealing with ethical issues, Greer said.
That’s a rare quality in anyone, he said, but particularly in the context of her work — treating AIDS patients, who were often gay, at a Catholic hospital. She sometimes worked with patients whose entire families had turned their backs because of the situation.
“She was one of the most objective critical thinkers I’ve ever met,” Greer said. “She truly believed that only God could judge.”
And she kept a sense of humor. Greer said he used to tell her locker-room jokes, then ask for forgiveness. She’d laugh.
“She was one of the true gifts that Miami offered the world,” he said. “She was the real thing.”
Gonzalez often counseled families through the heart-wrenching decision of whether to keep a patient on life support.
Among those patients was Pedro Zamora, one of the first openly gay men with AIDS who appeared in popular media, as part of the cast of The Real World: San Francisco in 1994.
Pedro’s sister, Mily Zamora, said she and her family were struggling to come to terms with the terminal nature of AIDS.
Zamora said it felt unreal, and she wanted to believe that her brother would someday get up and walk out of the hospital on his own.
Gonzalez helped her understand that everyone has to die. It takes a special person to bring someone to that conclusion peacefully, Zamora said.
She was “so real that you could talk to her about everything,” Zamora said. “She really worked to do her job with love.”
Florida State Sen. Rene Garcia became friends with Gonzalez while he was in the Legislature, working to get funding for San Juan Bosco clinic.
Sometimes in politics, he said, you wonder why you’re still there, of if you could help more people in the private sector.
“She always reminded me that God has put me there for a reason,” Garcia said. “I will never forget that.”
Gonzalez kept an eye on Garcia in the Senate, making sure he was doing the most good for his underrepresented constituents.
Garcia said she even called him in Tallahassee a few times to ask why he’d voted a certain way. She joked with the other nuns that she had her own senator.
Garcia flew to Miami to see Gonzalez about three weeks ago, when he heard her health had taken a turn. He said her eyes welled with tears as they spoke, and she reminded him to remember his purpose in politics — to do the most good.
“I’ve never had anyone like her — a mother, a friend, a spiritual guide,” he said. “We need more people like her.”
Gonzalez is survived by her sister Ethel G. Dunn, her brother Edward Gonzalez, and her nieces Pauline Gonzalez, Vanessa Dunn and Melissa Cabezas.
A wake will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday at Memorial Plan Kendall, 7355 SW 117th Ave. Mass will be celebrated at 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, 12125 SW 107th Ave.
In lieu of flowers, Gonzalez’s family and colleagues request donations to San Juan Bosco Clinic.