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Her 92-year-old mother, Mary Byrne, still lives in McLean, Va., not far from the home where she and her husband raised their eight children.

“We had a dog, and I didn’t want it to go upstairs,” Mrs. Byrne recalls. “Well, Dede, after I’d gone to sleep, would sneak downstairs to sleep with the dog on the floor. She didn’t want it to be lonely.”

The dog got to come back upstairs so young Dede could go back to sleeping in her own bed.

“She was always compassionate. She was always religious,” Mrs. Byrne says. “Her path never really surprised me.”

But there’s also this other side that at first glance doesn’t necessarily jibe with the life of a nun.

“Dede always had lots of fun, too. … We’re all like that in our family,” says Mrs. Byrne of her large Catholic clan. “We do a lot of sarcasm and it gets us in trouble sometimes.”

Sister Dede always wears her habit at the Spanish Catholic Charities clinic where she’s worked for the past eight years after “paying back” the Army for medical school and specializations in family practice and surgery.

She also sprinkles most conversations with jokes, some of which can be surprisingly irreverent.

“No, I haven’t been drinking. Won’t be doing that until I get home tonight,” she says, joking about a flash of forgetfulness one morning at the clinic, which treats about 7,000 uninsured patients annually.

This is the same day that she tells a colleague, retired general surgeon Dr. Paul Melluzzo, a volunteer at the clinic, that he is, well, ancient.

“Surgery was started by barbers in the Middle Ages,” she says. “Remember that, Dr. Melluzzo?” she inquires with a twinkle in her hazel eyes.

“I heard that,” Dr. Melluzzo says, smiling.

He is one of several retired doctors Sister Dede persuaded to volunteer at the two-story clinic, which also has 14 paid employees (the clinic is funded by private donations and some government grants as well as funds from the Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities).

“She came to me and said, “Come to the clinic, it’ll be good for you,” Dr. Melluzzo says.

That was two years ago.

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