Sister Rebecca White’s earliest memories are of her family’s cotton farm in rural Glennonville, Mo. “From the time I was 4, I worked in the cotton fields,” she remembers. Here, in the fertile lowlands of the Missouri Boot heel, schools opened in July and closed for a “cotton-picking vacation” in October, so that the children could work in the fields.
Rebecca Regina White was the next to youngest of the three sons and four daughters of Benjamin Worthington White and Geneva Anna Hagan White. “Dad worked full time on the farm, and mom divided her work between the kitchen and farm,” Sister Rebecca recalls. The whole family worked hard.
Their faith was important to the Whites. “On Sundays all nine of us piled into the car” for Mass at St. Teresa Church in Glennonville. Sister Rebecca remembers the whole family praying the rosary together at night after they were in bed. Her parents were active in parish life, working on TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) weekends and Cursillos. In a parish often without a full-time pastor, they led communion services and took the Eucharist to the sick.
Rebecca attended St. Teresa School from grades 1-8. She liked her Ursuline teachers, but never did she think of becoming a sister. “I imagined myself marrying a very rich man and having a lot of beautiful, intelligent children. Then,” she says, “I would be able to give a lot of money to the poor.”
As a high school junior experiencing depression, she consented when the pastor of a nearby parish offered to pray over her. Suddenly she began to laugh. “I felt as if I had been proposed to,” she says. She believed that this was perhaps a proposal from God, a call to religious life. It was an experience she took seriously, but she wasn’t yet ready to say yes: “I was keeping my eye out for any sign that I was NOT called to religious life.”
Rebecca went to a public high school and attended parish CCD classes taught by Ursuline Sister Elaine Byrne. Sister Elaine reached out to her, and they became friends. During the summer after high school, Rebecca worked with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters in a long-term health care facility near Chicago. She told Sister Elaine that she would probably join the Franciscans, since she already had a devotion to St. Francis. Sister Elaine challenged her: “Aren’t you even going to LOOK at my community?”
Rebecca took this invitation seriously too. But she had already decided to begin work on a nursing degree that fall, to make a practical preparation for her future. Then, after her first year at Southeast Missouri State University, she volunteered to work with two young Ursuline Sisters who were teaching a two-week Bible school in Mayfield, Ky. They invited Rebecca to go with them on a trip to the Mount. When she visited the novitiate, she says, she realized that God had led her to this place: “At that moment I knew for sure that I was home.”
After another year completing her associate degree in nursing and taking boards for her R.N., she entered the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, “with no doubt in my mind that this is where I belonged.” It was August 1978.
As a novice and young professed sister, Sister Rebecca dedicated herself to serving the elderly and ill sisters in the community infirmary. She took time off to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing and to work for a few months in a Louisville hospital, then returned to the Mount infirmary, where she served for five more intense years. “I did my best work in the infirmary,” she remembers, “and I hated to leave.”
But she had begun to struggle with serious burnout and gradually realized that she needed to seek a different ministry.
A good friend asked Sister Rebecca whether she had ever thought about teaching in the Contemporary Woman Program at Brescia College. “That was an aha moment!” she says. She felt a real call to this work and to the necessary preparation: a master’s degree in women’s studies, which she completed in 1995. For six years she worked as an instructor in women’s studies in the Brescia program.
At this point Sister Rebecca’s life was about to change in a way that was to take her away from active ministry and into a deep search to what God was asking of her. In the middle of her work at Brescia, she developed fibromyalgia – a disorder characterized by muscular pain, exhaustion and memory loss, as well as anxiety and depression. She struggled with her illness and inability to continue working. With the help of the community she sought physical, spiritual and psychological support.
“I’ve done a lot of work – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to accept this as part of my life,” Sister Rebecca said.
Today, with therapy and new medications, she is able to work part time as an assistant to the community archivist and as coordinator of the Angela Oratory, a resource space for prayer and study centered on Saint Angela, Saint Ursula and other Ursuline saints. “I hope I can serve my community in this position for many years to come,” she says.
Sister Rebecca is grateful that she is able to contribute to the work of the community, and grateful to the community for “the many opportunities for growth, healing and education – and for a caring spirit that I’ve come to cherish.”