BRADENTON — It was almost 6 p.m. Monday when Eliseo Ortiz went to Sister Nora Brick’s trailer on 14th Street West and asked for money to call his mother in Mexico.
The Valentine’s Day gesture was a ploy.
“I called the number for him,” the 81-year-old Irish nun said Monday 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.”
According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, Ortiz, 51, repaid Sister Nora’s kindness with a beating 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 on 14th Street West.
The nun, beloved for her work in Manatee County’s 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, dealing with people up and down 14th Street,” 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 was 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, they said.
“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, on Tuesday. “We had to call police.”
Sister Nora, whose nature is to see the good in everybody, threw 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 stunned volunteers at Stillpoint House of Prayer where a dry erase board still bore the words “Happy Valentine’s Day” from Sister Nora.
“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.”
Anyone with information about Ortiz’s whereabouts can call the sheriff’s office at (941) 747-3011 or Crime Stoppers at (866) 634-TIPS.