Wake Reflection for Sister Annalita Lancaster, OSU
February 7, 1923 – December 9, 2014
This is what Saint Paul wrote to the Romans:
“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them: of prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
“Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
Romans 12: 6 – 11
These words of Saint Paul, shared through Give Us This Day’s evening prayer on Saturday, Saint Nicholas’ day, could have been written as a reflection of the life of Sister Annalita Lancaster. Perhaps we usually think that this reading refers to the whole body of the Church, but if we pause a moment, we can see Rita Bernadette / Sister Annalita Lancaster in each of the key phrases. And we honor our memories of this Woodland, Kentucky, farm girl as we recognize how her life embraced:
- Diligence in service
- Cheerful mercy
And we would concur that Sister Annalita never grew slack in her zeal and spent her life fervent in spirit as she served her Lord.
And where and when did that life begin? In her own words we hear: “I was born Rita Bernadette Lancaster, Wednesday, February 7, 1923, at my home in the Woodland community of Meade County. My parents were Joshua Augustine Lancaster and Anna Magdalene McCracken Lancaster. I was baptized at birth, a small infant thought too weak to survive. My mother, too, had almost given her life giving birth to me. Grandmother McCracken nurtured us both to health.” Later, in the green of spring, Rita would be baptized again on Monday, April 9, 1923, at Saint Martin Church in Flaherty, Kentucky.
Rita was the third child in what would be a family of eight children – four boys – Charlie Mac (who died young in an ice-skating accident at Christmas time), Robert Paul, Joseph Edward, and Patrick Joshua – and four girls – Mildred Marie, Rita Bernadette, Mary Helen, and Emma Florence – all of whom were each other’s best friends and companions. And, on behalf of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, I say to Sister Annalita’s family members here that we offer you our love and our condolences as you grieve your loss.
Rita’s childhood was rich with images and experiences which fueled her imagination and her appreciation for God’s creation. She remembered being tiny enough that she could “get in the same basket with the baby lambs my Daddy rescued from the winter cold because they had been rejected by the mother sheep.”
When Rita turned six (6), she enjoyed her journeys to the Woodland School – a three-teacher school deep in the fragrant woods of oak and cedar and ferns. The first years of school were quite informal and almost family-like, with the school teachers frequently boarding with their students’ families. When Miss Ella boarded, she would “play piano duets with my mother and beat my daddy and Uncle Ed at three-hand Euchre.” And when Miss Ruth stayed, she helped manage the many pets, including the frequent “Catholic funerals for pets that we would bury in the apple orchard.”
While “life on the farm was simple and carefree, [and] we all had outside and inside chores,” when Rita reached the sixth grade all the small rural schools were consolidated into one large public school at Flaherty. “The transition from the casual, more intimate environment of a three-teacher. . . school to regimented discipline and institutionalized learning among strangers was traumatic.” But the next year, Ursuline Sister Jamesina became Rita’s teacher; she was “once again happy at school and a whole new world of opportunity opened up. Sister Jamesina made learning so easy and whetted my appetite for more.”
So began Rita’s zealous love affair with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Her years at Flaherty High School in Vine Grove provided further opportunities to deepen her acquaintance with the Ursulines. During her freshman year, Rita’s sister Mildred bought her a “clarinet with her very first pay check so I could join the band directed by Sister Mary Thomas.” Rita would say later that “Sister Mary Thomas was the inspiration I needed to explore religious life as an option. I knew she believed in me; I saw how she loved the other sisters, and saw how happy they seemed together. I believed that I could be happy living and loving as they did.”
Rita graduated from Flaherty High School in 1941, knowing that she wanted to become a teacher as her mother had been. Winning a full tuition scholarship to the Mount Saint Joseph Junior College, she travelled west to Maple Mount, Kentucky, to earn her Associate degree and her Kentucky teacher certificate. In her last semester, on the first of February 1943, almost on her 20th birthday, Rita Bernadette became a postulant, furthering her journey with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.
Her daddy was not very happy with her decision to enter, for he thought Rita’s life as an Ursuline would be like that of the Trappists at Gethsemane – complete with sleeping on straw mattresses in stone cells. Although she convinced him it would not be like that, at Rita’s investment, her “mother wanted to disown [her father] because of his noisy display of tears all during the ceremony. [But] he truly was happy, deep down, and I always knew it.”
So, on that Saturday, August 14, 1943, Rita Bernadette became Sister Annalita and joined her classmates Sisters Naomi Aull, Emma Cecilia Busam, Susanne Head, Cecilia Jean Lonergan, Joseph Emma Morris, Mary Nichols, Anne Louise Ramold, and Marie Bosco Wathen. What an incredible group! And to Sisters Naomi, Emma Cecilia, and Marie Bosco, we extend to you our love, our prayers, and our consolation as you bid your classmate farewell.
For the next several months, Sister Annalita explored what it meant to become the 515th Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph; discovering, amid the love and joy, the rule at that time and experiencing what it might entail to “keep the rule and rule will keep you;” knowing all along there was much, much more. Then on a hot Wednesday, August 15, 1945, Sister Annalita Lancaster professed her first vows, and her ministry as an Ursuline began in earnest.
Over the next 26 years she would teach in Kentucky and Nebraska. Beginning as the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teacher and organist at Saint Joseph School in Raywick, Kentucky, Sister Annalita quickly realized that teaching went well beyond the classroom. That first winter, she collaborated with the other young sisters with whom she lived to secure new shoes and socks for three barefoot children in their school. Next she spent eleven years at Saint John School in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. While there she worked with the younger students and again served as organist – and as choir and glee club director.
Back in Kentucky, Sister Annalita spent seven years at Saint Bernard High School in Clementsville, serving as teacher, organist, and principal. While Sister Annalita was at Saint Bernard, Kentucky increased its course requirements for a high school diploma; the students at Saint Bernard suddenly needed more classes and more books. The pastor said “we couldn’t afford new books, and that there were plenty of old Latin books in the bookstore back there; that should be enough.” As principal, Sister Annalita knew that what the students really needed were marketable skills – at that time and in that place, the technologies needed included typing and bookkeeping, but the equipment was too expensive. So, Sister Annalita worked with the National Forestry Service to plant 500 pine trees, earning a dollar for each tree planted; together with the proceeds from a few pigs and bales of hay, Saint Bernard had its new courses and technology, as well as a baby pine forest that flourishes today.
Sister Annalita’s skills in teaching and exhortation were then employed in Louisville, Kentucky, where she taught eighth grade at Saint James, then served as Supervisor of Catholic Elementary Schools, and established and directed the Saint Angela Education Center at Edenside.
In 1971 she became Director of Education at Mount Saint Joseph; in 1972, Sister Annalita Lancaster was elected Major Superior of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, a position she held until 1980. It was in these years that the religious communities throughout the world engaged with the education and renewal that emerged from the documents and considerations of the Second Vatican Council.
Sister Annalita’s gifts in education, prayer, and ministry expanded to include the prophetic and the encourager. Her Sisters became her students; she studied and wrote, exploring her congregation’s history, charism, foundation, roots, and future. For the next twenty-five years, Sister Annalita’s mission was exploration and outreach. Although she served in ministry at Brescia College and the Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Center, she was also immersed in the process of developing and articulating the Ursuline Way of Life, various sponsorship documents, and procedures for the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal office.
For seven years she served the people of Saint Jude Parish in Clinton, Kentucky, as their Pastoral Associate. And in 1995 returned to Mount Saint Joseph where she developed (and served in) the position of Director of Mission Effectiveness; she was asked to return for three years as a member of the Council, even though she told her Sisters, “You do not need a living grandmother on the Council!”
In 2005, Sister Annalita retired to become an assistant to the Archivist and to continue her writing and consulting, creating a guide to the shrines on the Mount Saint Joseph campus and the beautiful Divine Light which celebrates the art within the Motherhouse Chapel. Over the past five years, Sister Annalita’s health began to decline, but the fervor of her spirit continued. As she moved to Saint Joseph’s Villa, she retained her prophetic stance, reaching out to all she encountered. And to the staff of the Villa and all in the Pastoral Care ministry, on behalf of the Ursuline Sisters, I give our thanks for all the ways you supported Sister Annalita while she was in the Villa, and extend to you our prayers and consolation as you grieve her leaving us.
It really was not until earlier this year that Sister Annalita “really retired.” And even then, she left us with a cheerful exhortation: “It is a privilege to be a member in a hope-filled group of consecrated women walking the painful path of giving birth to the new. Our greatest challenge is to continue to move out of the box of century-old answers to life’s meaning and ask questions relevant to our present times, freeing ourselves from that blindness that comes from fixation on laws and tradition.”
And as we honor the faith-filled life that Sister Annalita lived among us, and as we thank our Lover and our Lord for welcoming her home, perhaps this simple response that Rita Bernadette gave to the Mount Saint Joseph Novitiate Questionnaire might speak volumes for the rich, rich life of Sister Annalita Lancaster:
What is your motive to become a religious?
“I want to love God more entirely and help to save millions of souls for Him.”
Well done, Sister Annalita, and welcome home.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph