Obituary: Sister Thomas Joseph 'TJ' Gaines / Nun served as EMT, aiding in relief efforts

Oct. 12, 1940 - May 12, 2014

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School teacher. Pastoral minister. Chaplain. Emergency medical technician?

One of these things may not be like the others, at least for the conventional resumes of Roman Catholic nuns, but they all reflected the ministry that Sister Thomas Joseph "TJ" Gaines sought to live -- whether on the streets of Wilkinsburg or the disaster fields left behind by hurricanes and tornados.

Sister Gaines died Monday at age 73 at Caritas Christi, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg. She had been a member of the order for 54 years.

"She was always doing for others, especially the sick," said Sister Claudia Stehle, who lived with her for 22 years. "She did more than just what her job required."

Sister Gaines most recently served as chaplain at Kane Regional Center in McKeesport, where she worked from 1981 to 2013.

She got a bachelor's degree from Seton Hill University in sociology and a master's degree from Duquesne in theology and pastoral ministry. She began her vocation as a teacher, working at Catholic schools throughout Western Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C., and from 1972 to 1981, she worked as pastoral minister at St. James Church in Wilkinsburg.

It was there that she also trained to become an EMT.

"I think it was again that idea of helping people," Sister Stehle said. "When she was in Wilkinsburg, she practically belonged to every agency in Wilkinsburg that helped the poor."

As chaplain at Kane, she coordinated volunteer work and raised funds that eventually led to the creation of a quiet garden there where patients and their families could relax.

She comforted not only the patients and their families, but also the staff, recalled administrator Charlene Flaherty. When a young security guard died unexpectedly, "she got on the loudspeaker throughout the building and said the Lord's prayer," Ms. Flaherty said. "It was very calming and comforting. That's the kind of thing that helped. It was a family here."

And when a patient at Kane who had become close to many staff members passed away, "she came up and sat with the staff and let them talk."

After a friend's nephew was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sister Gaines trained and was certified as a disaster-relief responder. She helped survivors as part of a spiritual care response team after hurricanes Charley in Florida in 2004 and Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, as well as tornados in Mississippi in 2011.

At emergency shelters, hospitals and battered homes, she counseled, listened to and prayed with survivors -- and helped soothe their anger when they felt overlooked by relief efforts.

Jane Strittmatter, director of public relations for the Sisters of Charity, said Sister Gaines once said those she lived with in her community were her inspiration. "The sisters are giving, concerned, prayerful and supportive. Hopefully, that is the kind of care that I took to disaster victims," Sister Gaines told her.

Georgeanne Halchak, a former member of the order and close friend of Sister Gaines for more than 50 years, said that witnessing the disaster scenes up close took its toll. "She would call me every evening. I was kind of her life support going through all that, it was so devastating to her."

Sister Gaines was a "very gentle woman, but she enjoyed life. When she worked, she worked. When she played, she played."

In her younger years, she liked to go out on her bicycle and rowboat -- one time needing to be rescued from a mud flat when the Monongahela River level was unusually low.

She was an avid fan of the Penguins, Steelers, Pirates and college teams.

"In fact, my first experience ever of watching a football game was with TJ," she said. "I wasn't interested in sports, but if you were TJ's friend for very long, you got interested with sports."

Ms. Halchak added, "You could always count on her. She was the first one there and the last one to leave when anyone needed anything."

Visitation will be today and Thursday from 2 to 7 p.m. with the funeral Thursday at 7 p.m. at Caritas Christi in Greensburg.


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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