A teacher and more
“I just assumed I’d be a teacher,” Sister Rita said, and for the next 26 years she was. She served in Paducah, Harrodsburg, Louisville and Fredericktown in Kentucky, then 10 years in Lourdes Central High School in Nebraska City, Neb. She taught every grade except fourth, fifth and sixth.
“I loved all my teaching assignments. I liked high school the best, you could do so many things,” she said. “I taught all boys at St. Bartholomew in Louisville, 7th and 8th grade. Everybody wanted to teach the girls, but I could challenge the boys. They asked questions they wouldn’t have asked if girls were there.” In 1954, she ministered with her 8th grade teacher, Sister Therese Martin Mattingly, when they opened St. Andrew School in Harrodsburg.
Sister Rita spent her summers pursing master’s degrees (she has a master’s in mathematics and one in pastoral ministry), but in summer 1973, she decided she wanted something different. She received a brochure that mentioned jail ministry in Kansas City, Mo., about 150 miles from Nebraska City.
“At my first meeting with the superintendent, he told me he would like me to teach volleyball and other sports to the women,” Sister Rita said. “My response was, ‘Mr. Gagne, I loathe volleyball. Let me do what I can do, I can teach.’ He agreed immediately.” All summer she taught men and women the basics. “What a thrill it was when one of them earned a GED,” she said.
Halfway through the summer, Gagne called her to his office, Sister Rita said. “Sis, you can’t go back to Nebraska. We need you here,” he said. She explained that she had a contract to teach in Nebraska and had to go back. He asked her to come back to stay after that next year.
No Ursuline Sister had participated in jail ministry before. Sister Rita contacted Sister Annalita Lancaster, who was major superior at the time, to seek her advice. “I remember her reply and especially her final words: ‘Our work is to take Christ to the poor. This is it. Make your plans and we will support you.’ And the support was always there,” Sister Rita said.
Her classroom was the gym with a leaking roof, and she had no books or supplies, so she had to borrow everything. She worked with men in the work release program, who were allowed to leave the jail during the day to work, but had to report back at night.
“The proudest student was a 53-year-old alcoholic man who studied day and night to earn his GED,” she said. “No one who ever earned a PhD could have been prouder.”
By the end of her second year, it was clear that the man who ran the STAR program – Specialized Training to Avoid Recidivism – was not doing his job, Sister Rita said. She did not want to be there on the day he got fired, so she left early. The next day, Gagne came to her and said, “You’re the new director of the STAR program,” she said. “I don’t want it,” she replied, but he said, “I didn’t ask you if you wanted it, it’s yours.”
For the next 12 years, she ran the program and made improvements. “I had to figure it out all by myself. I kept track of the guys, made sure they honored their contract,” she said. “I told them if they came back under the influence, they wouldn’t work for three days.”
“I was never worried. I could walk anyplace I wanted in that jail,” she said.