Wake Reflection for Sister Blanche Rita Bickett, OSU
“Let all the angels of God worship him.” Hebrews 1:6
This phrase from the Letter to the Hebrews was in the reading and the responsorial for the Mass on Monday morning, January 10, 2011. And that morning, in her 80th year of religious life and having completed her 98th Christmas season, Sister Blanche Rita Bickett went home to join that very throng of angels in worship of Jesus, her lover and her Lord.
Sister Blanche Rita began her long and steadfast journey in faith in Uniontown, Kentucky, on Wednesday, March 20, 1912, as Mary Blanche Bickett, the tenth child born to James Henry and Mary Alma Bickett. Within four years, numbers eleven and twelve completed the roster for the Bickett family with four brothers – Lewis, Paul, Lucian, and Ben – and eight sisters – Emma, Mary Josephine (who died before she was two years old), Mary Ellen (our Sister James Alma), Alice, Margaret, Mary Blanche (our Sister Blanche Rita), Elizabeth, and Agnes Lucille (our Sister Agnes Irene). Sister Blanche Rita was the last surviving member of that nuclear family; so it is to those many nieces and nephews and great- and great-great-nieces and nephews, that the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph extend our sympathy and prayers as you bid farewell to your dear aunt.
When she was just two months old, in May of 1912, Mary Blanche shared in the baptism of her Lord at Saint Agnes Church in Uniontown. Mary Blanche would later begin school at Shanks School, also in Uniontown, where she completed grades one through three. By the time Mary Blanche was ready to begin the fourth grade, the Bickett’s had moved closer to Waverly, Kentucky, where she went on to finish her elementary school years at Hitesville School.
The childhood years for Mary Blanche were loving years filled both with work and with fun. When thinking of that “fun,” Sister Blanche Rita remembered loving to dance. Neighborhood celebrations were not uncommon in Union County, Kentucky, and Mary Blanche shared a memory of one particular neighborhood platform dance. The five youngest Bickett’s had heard the news of the upcoming platform dance, and their mother was simply not able to resist their pleas to attend. She agreed to walk with the two boys and three girls toward their neighbor’s front yard, not too far away. Mary Blanche remembered that “we all got dressed up and [started out together] and I was walking along not watching where I was walking and I fell in the muddy ditch. [Now] I was dressed all in white, so you know what I looked like when my brothers got me out of the mud and the water. I had to go [back home] and wash up and dress again; then of course we went back to the dance.” But once “I got there, I did not dance [the rest of] that night for my sisters kept laughing at me.”
It was shortly after this in 1926 on a May Monday that Mary Blanche was confirmed in her faith at Sacred Heart Church in Saint Vincent, Kentucky. The Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph were becoming a central part of Mary Blanche’s life as she returned to Maple Mount that fall to complete her high school years at the Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
On September 8, in the fall following her 1930 high school graduation, Mary Blanche began her postulancy with the Ursulines. Six months later, on the feast of Saint Joseph in 1931, Mary Blanche Bickett became Sister Blanche Rita Bickett, joining her sister, Sister James Alma, as an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph. The class of 1931 boasted fifteen novices – Sisters Jean Claire Ballard, Mary Anselm Beavin, Mary Concepta Beavin, Blanche Rita Bickett, Isadore Brown, Elizabeth Henry Clark, Mary Beatrice Donahue, Charles Irene Hayden, Mary Augusta Hayden, Mary Ann Krampe, James Edward (Hilda) Mudd, Jamesina Spain, Mary DeSales Thomas, Margaret Ann Wathen, and Dorothy Ann Whelan. Sister Blanche Rita was the last surviving member of that striking group, having reached her eightieth year in religion.
When asked to reflect on her time in the novitiate, Sister Blanche Rita’s strongest memory seemed to be the cranky oven grate. She remembered getting up at 3:00 a.m. when it was their turn to cook breakfast; now getting up for their turn was not a problem, but “lots of times the grate would fall out of the stove and we had to make the fire all over again before we could [even start to] get breakfast [cooking].” As if this was not enough, Sister Blanche Rita reported that this grate would fall out over and over again and somehow she had become known as the great grate repairer. Breakfast cookers would wake up Sister Blanche Rita in the middle of the night – sometimes three or more times a week – to come repair the grate so the community could have breakfast. “Oh, well,” she would say, “I knew it would not be easy.”
Sister Blanche Rita made her first vows on her 21st birthday on Monday, March 20, 1933. By that fall, she was in Wynot, Nebraska, working in the school lunchroom and caring for the house “full of sisters” until the school closed at the beginning of summer. She moved on then to Sacred Heart Academy in Waterflow, New Mexico, where she made her perpetual profession of vows on her 24th birthday, Friday, March 20, 1936. After three more years in New Mexico, Sister Blanche Rita went to the Archdiocese of Louisville where, for the next thirteen years she served in school lunchrooms and cared for “houses full of sisters” in Saint Columba, Saint Francis, Saint Martin in Flaherty, and Saint Bartholomew in Buechel.
Across her missions, Sister Blanche Rita was steadfast and cheerful in her service and in Buechel received a letter of commendation from the Archdiocese Supervisor of the School Lunch Program. The Supervisor enthused, “. . . books at Saint Bartholomew are now in fine shape and have been since the first month of this school year. . . . [Sister Blanche Rita] has been most accurate with her books. It is a pleasure to get her reports!”
When reflecting on her mission experiences, Sister Blanche Rita wrote “[I] worked all day but I loved every minute of it. . . . I knew when I entered that living for Jesus was not an easy life, so I did my best without looking back. . . .” So, in 1952, she returned to her home at Mount Saint Joseph and assumed her duties in the laundry and, for a few years, in the kitchen. Until 1989, she would serve steadfastly as the Mount’s laundry supervisor. Those sisters and employees and school girls who worked or spent time in the laundry claimed that Sister Blanche Rita made it a “comfortable place to work.”
Indeed, not only did that laundry and its mangles keep the Mount Saint Joseph Motherhouse and Academy clean, pressed, and properly folded, on at least one occasion the unflappable and gracious Sister Blanche Rita came to the rescue of Brescia College – for just potato chips and soft drinks. But you’ll have to speak with Sister Philomena for that story. For many Academy school girls, the laundry became their second home, and Sister Blanche Rita was the “motherly presence” to them; for some, she was in fact their second mother. She once claimed that she had indeed “raised two families, and I am a nun!” To those of her laundry families who shared their lives with Sister Blanche Rita, we also offer our condolences and prayers.
In 1989, Sister Blanche Rita retired from her laundry and began the last stages of her life’s journey. When asked, she claimed, “I’ve just spent my retirement years praying for everyone.” Indeed, the records suggest that, over those years, dozens of schools and missions and hundreds of individual souls were – by name – beneficiaries of her prayers. During this time, Sister Blanche Rita maintained her sense of humor and her commitment to just doing her best “without looking back.”
In her “Annals” of 1996, she reported for her “Ministry” entry: “I just pray and sleep.” For her (optional) entry under the heading “Travel,” she listed: “from Chapel to bed (with a smile)!” In her 2002 annals, she shed new light on a ministry she shared with many, reporting that her “Type of Ministry” was: “prayer and suffering . . . and having fun!” To those at our Saint Joseph Villa who ministered and shared with Sister Blanche Rita, and helped make her suffering “fun,” we also offer our thanks, our love, and our condolences as you bid her “good-bye.”
So, how now do we name Sister Blanche Rita?
- Lunchroom and Laundry Supervisor
- Mother of Many
- Lover of Jesus
- Fleet-Footed Dancer
- Steadfast Disciple
- Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph
An earlier biographer claimed, “a visit with Sister Blanche Rita will raise your spirits and give your day a cheerful lift.” And Sister Blanche Rita, in her final entry in her “My Story” autobiography penned this closing prayer:
Oh my dear Jesus, I thank you for your graces and help to follow you in your footsteps all the years of my religious life. I know I am not all you ask of me. But my God, I love you with all my heart and soul.
And so we must be certain that Sister Blanche Rita has danced her way among that angelic host, worshipping now in total abandon the God she loved so well and so long.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph