(Sister Rita Lavigne went to heaven on Sept. 17, 2015.)
Rita Lavigne had attended Mass at Assumption Church in Topeka, Kan., since she was a little girl. At age 28, she was going to Mass every morning before work at an insurance agency.
One day in 1950, the pastor, Monsignor Eugene Vallely, suggested she drive the 74 miles to Paola and attend a women’s retreat offered by the Ursuline Sisters of Paola. Taught by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth all her life, Rita had never heard of the Ursuline Sisters. That retreat would change her life forever.
“I was so impressed by their hospitality, their charity and their camaraderie,” she said. “At meal time, it was the sisters who brought in all the food and served as waiters. I thought it was great.”
The next year, Rita attended the women’s retreat again in Paola, and for the first time, was considering life as a woman religious. In 1952, she was at a Sisters of Charity retreat led by Father Martin Currigan, a Jesuit priest, and mentioned she was planning to attend the women’s retreat again that year sponsored by the Ursulines. But Father Currigan had another suggestion.
“I think you should go down there and talk to them about entering the community,” he told her. That was the last nudge needed for Rita to become Ursuline Sister Rita Lavigne.
“I was working at a wonderful insurance company, making good money,” Sister Rita said. “I couldn’t have had a better boss. I gave him two months’ notice. He said if it didn’t work out, there was always a place for me there.” It turned out Sister Rita didn’t need a backup plan.
She entered as a postulant in September 1952, and became a novice in 1953, making 2015 her 62nd year as an Ursuline Sister. The Ursulines of Paola merged with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in 2008, and Sister Rita moved to Maple Mount in 2009.
She was 30 when she entered and the other postulant companions were 25, 21, 20 and 16. Sister Rita is the only one who is still a sister. She took the name Sister Mary Philip when she entered the community, after Saint Philip Neri.
“I’d heard a homily about Philip that he had a lot of humility,” Sister Rita said. “I thought if anyone needed humility, it was me.” When changes after the Second Vatican Council allowed sisters to return to their baptismal names, Sister Rita did so.
Sister Rita grew up in Topeka, where her parents ran a restaurant. Her father died when she was 9 and the family, which includes a younger brother, struggled through the Depression. She can still vividly remember the nights when her mother had closed the restaurant and returned to their two-room apartment above the restaurant, where her father was dying.
“She would kneel at my dad’s sickbed – I was beside her – and as she prayed, she would start to cry,” Sister Rita said. “My dad would take his hand and pat her folded hands, trying to make her feel better, though she knew he was dying.”
Her mother came from a musical family, and it was she who taught Sister Rita a love of the piano, which she continues to play by ear.
When Rita graduated from high school, she earned a scholarship to a business college. She got a job as a stenographer at Hill Packing Co., before she moved on to the insurance company, where she worked for seven years. Religious life was a fleeting thought when she was growing up. “I didn’t think I was good enough to be a sister,” she said.
She used her business acumen as a teacher in the business department at Ursuline Academy in Paola (1956-58) and at Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan. (1962-69). For four years between those high school assignments she taught sixth and seventh grade at Holy Name School in Kansas City, Kan.
During the summers when she was at Bishop Miege, she attended the University of Notre Dame to earn her master’s degree in business administration. She put that to use beginning in 1969, when she began her longest ministry and the one she is most associated with in Kansas, business administrator of the Lakemary Center in Paola, which serves developmentally disabled children and adults. She served there until 1987.
In 1987, she returned to Holy Name School as secretary and bookkeeper for five years. Sister Eugene Reynolds, the organist for the Ursuline community, died in December 1987, so Sister Rita began returning to the motherhouse on weekends to play for Mass and prayers. In 1990 she was elected to a four-year term on the leadership Council, and moved back to Paola full-time in 1992 to serve as organist and coordinator/hostess of outside retreats, which she did until 1999. She was the organist until she left for Kentucky in 2009.
One of her favorite ministries was coordinator of the Paola Association for Church Action Food Pantry, which she did from 1999-2008. Churches of various faiths supported the food pantry, which was in the Paola motherhouse.
Since moving to Maple Mount, she has volunteered her time working half days in the community archives. Her proudest accomplishment is completing two necrology books that have one-page biographies and a photo of all 91 sisters buried in the Paola cemetery. She continues to work on Paola items for the archives, such as making it easier to identify sisters featured in photographs.
“This gives meaning to my day,” she said. A smile quickly comes to her face when she talks about the sisters who served in Paola.
Becoming an Ursuline was a wonderful decision, she said. The companionship of the sisters through the years has been the best part of being an Ursuline Sister, she said.
“I’ve been very blessed throughout my life,” Sister Rita said. “I’ve met so many wonderful people.”