Wake reflection for Sister Rita Lavigne, OSU
August 2, 1922 – September 17, 2015
In the refrain of our opening song this evening we heard: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love him.” While we usually think of this as reflecting our life after death, it seems as true to think of it as reflecting the beginning of our life on earth. Who of us knows what God has ready for us in this life? Sister Rita certainly did not when she was born to Harry and Elizabeth Bestgen Lavigne on Wednesday night, August 2, 1922 at St. Francis Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. She was their oldest living child and would be followed by one brother, Harry. To Harry and her other relatives, we offer our deepest sympathy and gratitude for sharing Rita with us.
Rita’s parents owned a restaurant on Kansas Avenue in Topeka and earned a comfortable living until Harry died when Rita was 9 years old. It was also the time of the Depression, but her mother struggled on with the restaurant and made a living for herself and her children. Rita and her brother would stay at the restaurant with their mother where Rita learned the value of hard work from her mother. From her, she also learned the love of music. Rita remembers, as a little child, standing at the treble end of the piano as her mother played, trying to reach the keys to “help her.” However, she also gained a love of music from the Salvation Army Band who would play on the street corner near the restaurant. As I understand, she and her brother would sneak out of the restaurant and go listen to the band. This might have been where Rita began honing her ability to play by ear, a talent she called on many times through the years to entertain a wide variety of audiences. She said it was especially helpful when she had to provide music before weddings or funerals because she could just have a list of songs in front of her and wouldn’t have to fuss with all the sheet music. Her favorite composer was Richard Rogers and she had a special love for, and aptitude to play, many show tunes. Lest you think she was not a serious musician, however, she is listed in a recital booklet for pupils of Assumption Music Class on February 16, 1930 – “Rita Marie Lavigne, playing ‘The Hummingbird’ by Schiller.”
Rita was a “home girl,” staying in her home parish of Assumption Church in Topeka from the time she was born until she entered the convent. She was baptized there on August 30, 1922, made her First Communion there on May 18, 1930, and was confirmed there on May 21, 1933. Even after she graduated from Hayden High School in 1940 and began a business career in Topeka, she would attend daily Mass at Assumption.
After high school, Rita won a scholarship to a business college and got her first job at Hill Packing Company, making $11.88 a week. She worked there for five years and for another seven years at Meade Insurance Company. Toward the end of these years, Rita made a woman’s retreat at Paola and was impressed with the sisters’ prayerfulness and playfulness. She made the same retreat the next year and became determined to try this lifestyle.
Rita entered the Ursuline community on Monday, September 8, 1952, at the age of 30; one of five to enter at that time. As she later wrote, her companions, when she entered were “25, 21, 20 and 16. We got along fine, but it wasn’t easy for me.” She became a novice on August 21, 1953 and was given the name, Sister Mary Philip. Temporary vows of three years were taken on August 23, 1955 and her final profession was on Saturday, August 23, 1958. Even though she had no companions left from her Paola class, she gained Sisters Margaret Ann Aull, Catherine Barber, Paul Marie Greenwell, Mary Gerald Payne, and Mary Agnes VonderHaar as her companions with the merger of the Paola Ursulines with the Mount St. Joseph Ursulines in 2008. To these companions we offer our heartfelt prayers and loving support at Rita’s passing.
As a Paola Ursuline, Rita embarked on her academic and ministerial career. She earned a B.S. in Education from Creighton University in 1962 and a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame in 1968. We thought she was hard at work earning her Master’s at Notre Dame. Little did we know she was also pursuing a career in fashion modeling! As you will remember, these were the years right after Vatican II and there was much experimenting going on. The South Bend Tribune of June 25, 1967 ran a front page layout of various communities in their “new” habits and, proudly strutting her stuff, along with members of many other communities, was our own Rita, looking quite chic. She had always said how she loved those years at Notre Dame because of all the various communities represented there. Little did we know!!!
Rita began her ministry at Ursuline Academy in Paola, teaching in the Business Department from 1956-58. From there, she went to Holy Name Grade School in Kansas City, Kansas, teaching 7th and 8th grades. Her musical talent would always accompany her assignments and she told of having to juggle her classroom whenever there was a funeral. She would take some of the students to sing and farm the rest out to various classrooms. From Holy Name, she went to Bishop Miege High School, once again teaching in the Business Department from 1962-69. In 1969, she began her ministry at the just-established Lakemary Center in Paola for students with developmental challenges. She began working while the facility was being constructed and participated in the initial grant writing. She was the first Business Administrator and in August of 1982 became the Coordinator of Fiscal Services. She retired from Lakemary in June, 1987. She returned to Holy Name School in Kansas City, Kansas as secretary to the principal, or as she says “the jack of all trades,” where she served until 1992. During this time, she was also elected to the Council and served in leadership from 1990 until 1994. In 1992, she returned to the Motherhouse in Paola and took on several roles: Coordinator of Retreat Ministry, organist for the community, and Coordinator of the Food Pantry located at the Motherhouse – a project of the Paola Association for Church Action (PACA). She was a tireless worker, serving the poor through the food pantry and as a member of PACA. In 2000, Rita was named “Volunteer of the Year” by ECKAN – the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corporation – for her work with the poor. In 2008, she was honored by the Paola chapter of the Shamrock Study Club as their “Woman of the Year” for her “valuable contributions to our community, often without receiving recognition…for her efforts.” When the food pantry was moved from the Motherhouse in December of 2008 because of our pending move, Sister Kathleen Condry, then superior, wrote a letter of gratitude to Sr. Rita talking about how graciously she had served the poor through the food pantry, often called away from meals or prayer to fill food orders, saying of Rita “…you have been a grocer, shelf stocker, beggar, janitor, social worker and accountant.” And Rita did it all with charm and a smile on her face.
Rita moved to Maple Mount in 2009, taking up residence in the Villa, continuing her life of service: helping play for liturgies and working in the Archives. With gratitude to Randy Shelby, Pastoral Care Coordinator, and to Amber Jones and the Villa staff who offered support and care to Rita, we offer you our prayers and sympathy. In an interview for our Paola community newsletter, “Signs of the Times,” in 1990, Rita said the one word that would sum up her vocation was “service.” We can certainly see how that has played out through her life. A quote she kept on her desk for years sums this up: “I shall pass this way but once; any good thing therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it; for I shall not pass this way again.”
In 1995, Rita had written a letter to then Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum, U. S. Senator from Kansas and daughter of Alf Landon. In the letter, she recalled witnessing Alf Landon’s “big day” in Topeka in 1936 (when he was running for President) as well as urging Nancy to champion some justice cause at the time. Nancy sent a letter of thanks to Rita on January 22, 1996 and, in it, quoted an old English prayer which, I think, reflects Rita’s life and with which I would like to close.
Take time to be friendly —
It is the road to happiness.
Take time to dream –
It is hitching your wagon to a star.
Take time to love and be loved –
It is the privilege of the gods.
Take time to look around –
It is too short a day to be selfish.
Take time to laugh –
It is the music of the soul.
Sister Kathleen Dueber
September 20, 2015