Wake Reflection: Sister Rosita Willett, OSU
On Ash Wednesday, February 21, 2007, as the rest of us were just beginning our Lent, Sister Rosita finished her Lent, and stepped into the brightness of Easter morning.
Sister Rosita celebrated her first morning on November 5, 1918, in Waverly Kentucky, when she was born to Joseph Edward Willett and Jane Isabel Perdue. That morning came a little too soon…she was two months premature, weighing only three pounds. She was so frail that her parents feared she might not live. When she was baptized “Rose Marie” at Saint Peter Church in Waverly on December 8, her mother took her to the Blessed Mother’s altar and presented her to Mary, saying, “God, save my baby, and I will dedicate her to your service.”
Rose Marie was the second child of eight, with older brother Thomas Edward and younger siblings Dorothy Jane, Anna Ursula (our Sister Dorothy Marie), Mary Kathleen, Joseph Vernon, Theresa Bernadette, and Doris Hiltrude. She loved her family, and on behalf of the entire Ursuline community, let me extend our special sympathy to you, Sister Dorothy Marie, and the rest of the family. Her mother said she and Edward had been blessed with “eight good children,” which left them without a lot of extra cash, but a loving family. Letters from her mother to Mother Laurine left no doubt how fond her parents were of their little “Rosita.” And there is evidence that Rosita was indeed a “Daddy’s Girl,” as you will see.
Her first education was at home with her older brother, where they were taught by a cousin, Della. Then she went to Saint Ann’s in Morganfield to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. The family moved around quite a bit at that point in her life, so Rose Marie also attended Holy Name in Henderson, the public school in Corydon Kentucky, and Weaverton Junior High School. But, she said, “Daddy wanted the best education for me, and sent me to Mount Saint Joseph Academy.” From high school and later junior college days she remembered with special fondness Sisters Mary Jean, Elizabeth, Martina, Gabriel, Marguerite, Aquina, Mary Cecilia, Eugenia, Generose, Casimir, and Jerome.
Contrary to her father’s wish to send her back to Mount Saint Joseph for junior college, but surely in accord with her mother’s wish on her baptismal day, Rose Marie decided to enter the novitiate, having come to love and admire her Ursuline teachers. She entered on September 7, 1937, with classmates Molly Spalding, Antoinette Cooper, and Ethyl Sims. Sister Lennora entered in January and she received the habit with them on August 14, 1938. She chose the name Mary Rosita, which apparently the family had used for her—she said she had “kept ‘Rosita’ because daddy loved my name.” That same year, her father moved the family to Wabash County in Illinois, impressed as he was by the “rich black dirt” there.
Rosita’s first mission was to Saint Dennis in Fancy Farm, where she got to teach in all the grades from first through eight, somehow finishing out that eventful year at Saint William in Philpot! When she came back to the Mount that summer, she saw on the bulletin board a request for volunteers to go to New Mexico. She responded immediately, and to her delight was selected to go, so she packed her trunk and went to teach at Saint Thomas in Farmington.
At that time, sisters were expected to stay in New Mexico for five years before coming back for a visit. Her own mother’s letters to Mother Laurine leave no doubt that the family was unhappy with this arrangement, and begged for her to be able to come back where she would be closer to home. Mother Martina told Rosita “it will be the death of your father if you can’t come home.” Well, she did come for a visit, twice in the four years she was there, but she found time in the summers to attend Catholic Teacher’s College in Albuquerque, collecting some credits to add to those gained at Mount Saint Joseph Junior College. Four years later, she came back to Kentucky to minister at Holy Cross School in Holy Cross, Saint Joseph and Paul in Owensboro, Saint Thomas More in Paducah, Immaculate Conception in Earlington, Saint Martin in Rome and Saint Edward in Jeffersontown, in which schools she served as teacher, and often as principal. (About Saint Martin she said she was” principal, janitor, cook, and 7th and 8th grade teacher!”)
Along the way Rosita completed a bachelors degree in English and a masters degree in Administration and Supervision at Our Lady of the Lake College in San Antonio, Texas. Later she would further her education at Murray State and Western Kentucky University, obtaining a certificate as high school counselor. She was a good student—got mostly A’s! In 1965 she taught one year in the education program at Brescia, after which she served two years as Supervisor for the Catholic schools of the Owensboro Diocese. From there she returned to Brescia, this time as Registrar, “without computers, when enrollment was at its peak”. Rosita surely must deserve a prize for being one of the most versatile of Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines…in the 70’s she worked at Saint Peter in Stanley, as secretary, tutor to Vietnamese children, and “prudent companion” to Sister Karla Marie. Later she came to the Academy as recruiter, secretary, and counselor. Still later she worked in the retreat center there in something she excelled in—hospitality.
But it was in 1981 that she discovered one of the great loves of her life, parish ministry. After a year at Saint Ignatius Parish in Louisville as Coordinator of Religious Education, she was visiting her elderly mother in Mount Carmel, Illinois. The pastor told her he had a job for her, so she stayed for eight wonderful years, working as pastoral assistant, census taker, language arts teacher, and caregiver for her mother. From those years she had a memento, a set of certificates from the Diocese of Belleville, certifying that she was an official Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, an honor in which she gloried.
In 1991, Rosita had a serious stroke and heart attack. One of the nurses in the infirmary here reported that Sister Rosita could not talk, but “seems to recognize the sisters, has a smile for everyone, and practically lives in her wheelchair.” Through it all, Sister Dorothy Marie was very devoted, taking her down to the dining room or out to see the flowers. I remember those days; we thought Sister Rosita’s active days were over, but she had a “last hurrah” in her… After making a miraculous recovery, she went back to her beloved Saint Mary Parish in Mount Carmel for two more years, returning to the Mount with a thick sheaf of worship aids, thank-you notes and her children’s homemade cards. This remarkable woman finished her remarkable career at Brescia, once again, as clerical assistant in the ministry formation program, as tutor for the student support services, and as volunteer at the Daniel Pitino homeless shelter.
She retired in 1996, and moved to the infirmary in 1999, where she received loving care from our health care staff and from her devoted sister. The community and I also extend our thanks and sympathy to the health care staff, to our pastoral care team, and to the local community for making our Sister’s last years so comfortable.
Sister Rosita had some down times in her life, and her health could not handle much stress. But most of us picture her just bouncing through life with a big smile on her face. Full of energy, a hard worker, she loved God and all God’s people—and it showed. In 1996, the year she retired, a woman in Florida sent a letter, saying that she had been a student at the Mount for two years and just wanted to share with someone how she felt about Rosita, who had taught her in the 7th grade in Owensboro. She said “I have tried to understand over the past 43 years just why I have never forgotten her, and to come to terms with why she was so very special to me in my life and in my memories. Sister Rosita was one of a kind! I can still see her beautiful smile, her laughing eyes, and feel the love she radiated for the students. There was a warmth, a gentleness, a strength, and above all a tremendous love of teaching and sharing her faith that prevailed. Throughout my married life, in the most unexpected places and circumstances, Sister would flitter through my mind—something she had spoken about, a comment she had made, a gesture of compassion and love shown to a student—it seems as though she has walked every step of my life with me in my heart and soul. She touched my life so profoundly and significantly in all that I have done in my life and in the way I have walked my journey through it, that I wanted you to know what a truly special and remarkable woman she is. I truly believe that Sister Rosita is a saint that I was fortunate enough to have met in my lifetime. I can never forget this beautiful woman.” Well — we couldn’t have said it any better.
In May of 1943, Sister Rosita, you wrote to Mother Teresita and the council, asking to be received to final profession. You said, “During my time of temporary profession, I have tried to be faithful to my vows and holy rule, and by the grace of God, I hope to make vows for life, and persevere to the end.” Well, Rosita, you did it! Congratulations, and welcome home.
Sister Michele Morek, OSU