Wake Reflection for Sister Mary Rudina Klarer, OSU
January 3, 1926 – July 11, 2014
“But Ruth said, ‘Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’”
“Abraham spoke up again: ‘See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord . . . what if there are five less than fifty?’ . . . Still [Abraham] went on, ‘Since I have thus dared to speak . . . what if there are no more than 20?’”
Genesis 18:27a, 28a, 31a
Sister Mary Rudina Klarer, Prayer
On Saturday morning, July 12, as we prayed morning prayer with our Jubilarians, we heard Ruth say to Naomi, her good-mother, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go . . . .” I believe we each also may have heard an echo that morning of Sister Mary Rudina saying to her good-mother, Mary – Mother of Jesus – “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”
More than 88 years ago, on a sun-porch in winter-bound Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Rita Klarer began her incredible journey on a frosty Sunday, January 3, 1926. The fifth child born to Rudina Philomena Bauer and Leo Lambert Klarer, and the second daughter – to the delight of her older sister Peggy – Rita joined a faith-filled and loving family. Her birth was notable, among other events I’m sure, for causing her mother to miss Sunday Mass. Rita would later remember that there were only “two things we didn’t miss or be late for in our family: Sunday Mass and football games when any of my brothers were playing.” And, of course, just one week later, on Sunday, January 10, Mary Rita received her baptismal call to live as a cherished daughter of God.
Over the next seven years, the Klarer family roster was completed with eight siblings to share life together: Margaret Ann (Peggy), Leo Frederick (Bud), William Joseph (Bill), Rudolf Fulton (Rudy – also known as the Sheik), Mary Rita (our Sister Rudina), Rudina Jean (known as Jean), James Anthony (Jimmy, who died in infancy), and John Donald (Don). All have preceded Sister Rudina in death and must have swelled her welcoming throng. In a letter some years ago, Sister Rudina wrote that it had been a “real treat to spend all those hours at the Mount and then to get to see my family in Louisville; what more can one ask of one trip?” How deeply she loved her family, and to you – nieces and nephews and all the beloved family of Sister Rudina who have been able to join us here – on behalf of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, I offer our consolation and extend our prayers and love.
Rita and her siblings shared childhood through the Great Depression; she noted that they grew up on Market Street “. . . right next to the lumber yard. The depression affected us just as it had most of the people in the country. We didn’t mind though; there were lots of things to do on Market Street.” I can only imagine. For herself, she reflected that, “with a birthdate in the dead of winter, and three older brothers, I had to be tough to survive.” And she was a survivor, one who defeated two life-threatening illnesses as a child, and – because of her mom’s habit of late night prayers – was warned in time to escape from a ruinous house fire. By the time of the Great 1937 Flood, the Klarers were back on the Parkway; when the flood came, their house filled with people, the river filled their back yard, and they all grew quite tired of “living on Ovaltine and soup!”
Rita began her formal education and further faith formation with the Ursuline Sisters at St. Columba in Louisville. Of that encounter with the Ursulines, she would say, “The call to religious life was pretty much an inner call to Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines because of the fine women [at St. Columba] who tried to teach me something.” That may have been a difficult task those early years. Sister Rudina later claimed that all she could remember of her first communion and her confirmation, a Monday in May when she was seven years old, was that she spilled her coffee all over her first communion dress, and that what she came to understand, even then, was that “coffee is one of the basic food groups.”
But the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph had indeed exerted a strong pull on Mary Rita. In the fall of 1940, she left Louisville to begin studies at the Mount Saint Joseph Academy – still mourning the loss of her grandfather (her PaPa) and the all too early loss of her father. When she lost her brother Bud during that first year at Maple Mount, she knew she could “not return to the Mount; I felt I was needed more at home,” she said. Perhaps she was even then beginning her lifetime of petitioning with God for the welfare of others. Back in Louisville, Rita would continue her secondary education and graduate from Presentation Academy in 1944. She won a scholarship to Nazareth College (now known as Spalding) and completed three semesters there.
During these semesters, Rita lost her brother Rudy in the last months of World War II and she began to hear more insistently an expansion of God’s call. She wrote later, “One message that stands out boldly is God’s invitation to leave my home and family, and a future possible family of my own, to follow Him closely as an Ursuline Sister. Like Mary I could say only – Fiat! And like Mary, I had no way of knowing what my Fiat would entail!” She could not keep this news to herself.
First she invited her special college friends for a slumber party so she could share the news of her call and her response. “After the initial shock, they made bets as to how long I would last . . . ranging from one week to two years.” More than 50 years later, she would note, “I think it might be about time for me to call in the bets.” And second, one evening after coming home from a date, Rita told her mom about her decision to enter; her mother said, “Enter? Enter WHAT?” Rita wrote, “It took a while [for the news] to sink in; and she wasn’t too sold on the idea, but eventually she came to be ecstatic over the idea of having a nun daughter.”
So, the stage was set. On a drizzly, gray Friday, February 1, 1946, Mary Rita Klarer – carrying the blanket that would see her through the Postulancy and the Novitiate, and which she was still using when she left Kansas City in 2011 – joined with six other classmates to explore Ursuline life. In just seven months, the six remaining classmates would begin their Novitiate on a steamy Wednesday, August 14, 1946. This was the group that then formed each other, and by their examples, so many others: Sisters Mary Irene Cecil, Marita Greenwell, Jeanne Mary Hardesty, Agnes Mary Johnson, Mary Rudina Klarer, and Mary Carl Sherron. And to Sister Mary Irene, we open our hearts and prayers to you as we mourn with you the loss of your classmate.
On Sunday, August 15, 1948, Sister Mary Rudina made her first vows, and was immediately “off and running,” giving God her “Yes,” following in the steps of Mary, and ready to petition God for the welfare of anyone she met. First to help establish St. Thomas More in Paducah, Kentucky, where she taught first grade (and wrote and performed Christmas plays with her classes of, typically, 70 or more first graders). It was there at St. Thomas More she discovered that people actually “ate Billy Goats.” She admitted that they were rather stringy. While in Paducah, on another steamy August Wednesday in 1951, Sister Rudina made her final vows as an Ursuline Sister.
In 1954, Sister Rudina traveled on to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, opening Saint Andrew School where, in the back of the church, she taught first graders who sat backward on the kneelers and did their classwork on the pews. In 1959, in Buechel, Kentucky, at St. Bartholomew School, she advanced to the 7th and 8th grades and began teaching the “New Math.” Armed now with a degree in math and moving toward her first Masters in Math Education from Xavier University, Sister Rudina graduated to high school teaching – first at Holy Trinity in Fredericktown, Kentucky, and then for ten years at Lourdes Central High School in Nebraska City, Nebraska. In her high school years, she taught students math and sciences and introduced them to the wider world through competition and achievement in math and science fairs. One of her students remembered her as a “. . . spirit-filled math teacher [who] subsisted on adrenaline, caffeine, prayer and little sleep. She was everyone’s friend.”
Through those twenty-six years of teaching in the schools, Sister Rudina kept hearing God’s call, bargaining for the welfare of her charges, following Mary’s steps, and holding to her “Yes.” But she began to sense the direction of her call and responses shifting. She once reflected, “Even sacred cows eventually die. And if the cows don’t, something else far more sacred will.” She knew she was being lead to a change.
After much prayer and many conversations, Sister Rudina, in 1974, began a fourteen-year life-enhancing ministry at the Municipal Correctional Institution (MCI). Of her discernment and decision she wrote that she knew she was called to take “. . . Christ to the ‘poorest of the poor.’ And without a doubt, the men and women sent to MCI are the poorest of the poor in Kansas City. Poor in education, social standing, goals, family structure, financial resources, support systems. But many of them are rich in personal integrity on the nitty-gritty level.” To work at MCI, she moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where she was the only Ursuline from Mount Saint Joseph.
In her annals, Sister Rudina (known for a while as Sister Rita to us and as Sister Mary to her residents at MCI) wrote of her work there:
- “The work is frustrating, challenging, discouraging, engrossing, and deeply satisfying. Also very necessary – and a good place for an Ursuline to be.”
- “The stark reality is that we can do precious little. . . . Sometimes all I could offer [were] ‘listening, comforting, and being with’ [which] help temporarily, if only because they say ‘I care’ in a life that has had too few who care sincerely.”
While working at MCI and in the years which followed, so many events and experiences occurred and influenced Sister Rudina’s life and her impact on others, it is hard to separate them or give them chronological order. Indeed like a complex origami fold, they cannot be separated from one another. Some are:
- Sister Rudina discovered and became an integral part of the life and work of Shantivanam, the Forest of Peace.
- She had a physically devastating accident, with two months in the hospital.
- Sister Rudina expanded her writing (remember the first grade Christmas plays?) and preaching, and her reflections began to be much more broadly published and shared.
- She continued her education, securing a Masters in Pastoral Studies from Loyola, and a CPE (Chaplaincy) Certificate from Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
About her accident, Sister Rudina would write, “While I would never choose such an experience, I can honestly say it has not been all bad. In fact there has been much more beauty than misery. One tends to forget the pain and frustration and remember the genuine goodness of so many people.” What a deep learning this was for her. Of Shantivanam, Sister Rudina simply stated: “Any narrative of the highlights of my life must include the immeasurable impact of Shantivanam, the Forest of Peace.” Perhaps at this time, I could – in the name of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph – offer our prayers and extend our condolences to all those friends gathered here whose lives have been touched by Sister Rudina.
After her accident and recovery, Sister Rudina served three more years at MCI, and then moved into retreat and spiritual hospitality work at Saint John Diocesan Center and later at the Adama Prayer House. Beginning in 1992, Sister Rudina began seven years of service as Chaplain at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO. Of this work she wrote, “Of all the things I’ve tried to do . . . I find this to be the most challenging and the most rewarding. . . . It also affords me the opportunity to baptize many babies [and console countless families].” At her last count, she had baptized 200 infants; surely they are swelling the throng at her welcome home.
Before coming to the Villa at Mount Saint Joseph, Sister Rudina would serve the people in St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City for twelve years. She would accompany people home to their God, introduce many to Saint Angela, foster many abandoned living things – dogs, birds, fish – and adopt and distribute hundreds of Teddy Bears to people in need of a hug. Then, late in 2010, Sister Rudina knew it was time to come home to Kentucky. Of her January 2011 departure from Kansas City, she would write, “I have been out here over 40 years. Much more than half of all my working years. I’m glad we don’t have to pack up and transfer MEMORIES; they come along unbidden.”
And so, Sister Rudina, you have journeyed from a bright sun-porch in Louisville across a world of experiences, always understanding and re-understanding your call from your loving God and remaining faithful to your Fiat, to reside for a few years in your sunny room in the Villa. And to the health care and pastoral care staff who bargained with God for your welfare and held you in their hearts and prayers, in your name – and the name of all the Ursulines – I offer our thanks and condolences.
And now, Sister Rudina/Sister Rita, we echo your favorite prayer of “Yes God.” You are truly home; but I will close this, offering in your behalf, words from the eulogy you wrote to your parakeet, JB (Jail Bird). The words, I think, could be just as true from us to you: “What they may not know is the fun we had, learning each other’s ways, and in so doing, learning to love each other. Ah, how easy you were to love!”
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph