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Longtime Kane Regional chaplain inspired others

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Sister T.J. Gaines shows off her 'bucket hat' with the Red Cross pins she collected while helping tornado victims in Mississippi in 2011.
Carol Waterloo Frazier | Daily News
Sister T.J. Gaines shows off her 'bucket hat' with the Red Cross pins she collected while helping tornado victims in Mississippi in 2011.

No matter the situation, Sister Thomas Joseph Gaines was always positive, upbeat and quick to greet people with her infectious smile and laugh.

The 73-year-old Sister TJ, as she was known, died Monday at Caritas Christi, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg.

She entered the Sisters of Charity in December 1959 from St. Irenaeus Parish in Oakmont. “I always wanted to be a sister,” she once said. “I have been blessed with years filled with many challenges and many opportunities for growth — personal, spiritual and professional.”

Longtime friend Georgeanne Halchak said she and Sister TJ were like a basket. “Our lives have been intertwined since we were 19. Now we're 73 and she's gone ahead of me, but I'll be with her some day.”

After Halchak left the community, she said they remained good friends. “We jelled. Our families became very close and we celebrated holidays and other big events together. When my mother died, her mother took me into her home. She was like a blood sister to me.”

An avid sports fan, Sister TJ introduced Halchak to football and the Steelers. “She got me hooked on football, but she couldn't get me interested in baseball. She was also an avid hockey fan so my brother-in-law, who worked for the Penguins, would get her tickets for her birthday.”

With her passing, Halchak said there is a big void in her life. “We did everything together. We went to the Holy Land together, we prayed together. We started our journey together, but she finished before me.

“She was a great, great lady. She touched many people and she will be missed. Even in her suffering, she always had something positive to say. She died the way she lived — always helping people.”

Jane Strittmatter, director of public relations for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, was impressed by how the sisters “gave her tremendous support. She said they taught her how to work as a team. When she did the relief work, she grew from those experiences. What impressed her was how people in complete devastation never lost their faith. She said the people she went to minister to ended up ministering to her — that she was the one who received the gift.”

After 54 years of active ministry — including 32 years with Kane Regional Centers — Sister TJ retired from the McKeesport Regional Center after 30 years, much of that time as chaplain.

She was instrumental in establishing the Garden of Reflection at the Kane facility. She had a vision for a tranquil place for residents, employees and families to spend time and, after seven years of planning, it became a reality in June 2011. At the dedication ceremony, Sister TJ said of seeing her dream come to life, “Alleluia, alleluia. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Always wanting to heap praise on others, she was grateful for those who helped with that project. “If I haven't thanked you personally, I have thanked you in prayer,” she said at the dedication.

Charlene Flaherty, administrator at the McKeesport center, said a memorial service will take place in June when the garden will be renamed the Sister TJ Garden of Reflection.

“That garden was so important to Sister TJ,” Flaherty said. “It was such a joy to her. We are going to name the garden for her.”

Through the years, the people at Kane became her family. “She worried about all of us,” Flaherty said. “This was her home, her life. When our security guard died unexpectedly, everyone was upset so she got on the intercom and said the Lord's Prayer. She cared about everyone here.”

The administrator said she knew she could go into Sister TJ's office and “sit down and really just relax and talk to her. She had a very calming way and could really put things into perspective. You always felt good after you were in her presence.”

For 13 years, Jeannie Mardell of Versailles has been volunteering at Kane and was friends with Sister TJ, who was the director of the volunteers.

“Talk about a blessing,” Mardell said. “Her mere presence inspired you to do things. Next to my mother, I loved her the most. She was so beautiful — she couldn't do enough for you.”

After Sister TJ retired to the motherhouse, Mardell said she visited her once a week. “God sure put an angel on Earth with her. She was a special lady and she is sadly missed. We are all blessed to have made her acquaintance. We don't meet people by accident and I think it was God's plan that we all got to meet her. My love for her will never die. She will always be with me.”

While serving as the pastoral minister at St. James Parish in Wilkinsburg, Sister TJ became an emergency medical technician and ambulance driver and received the Harold B. Gardner Citizen's Award for her ambulance work. She was named Citizen of the Year in Wilkinsburg in 1981 for her social and spiritual leadership.

Sister TJ's desire to serve others led her to minister to victims of natural disasters. After Hurricane Charley in 2004, she provided mass care and distributed food. The next year she went to New Orleans with the Spiritual Response Team of the American Red Cross to help those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, Sister TJ spent three weeks ministering to tornado victims in Mississippi.

Referring to her relief efforts, Sister TJ said, “My community lifestyle inspired my ministry with the support team. The sisters are giving, concerned, prayerful and supportive — hopefully that is the kind of care I took to the town of residents of Mississippi.”

Visitation is Wednesday and Thursday from 2-7 p.m. with a vigil Wednesday night at 7 at the Caritas Christi Motherhouse in Greensburg. Funeral is Thursday at 7 p.m.

Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or

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