A life-changing accident
In June 1985, a truck turned in front of the car Sister Rita was driving. Both her legs were severely injured and she spent two months in the hospital, where she was told she would likely never walk again. That only emboldened her to try harder.
The most difficult aspect of being in the hospital was that her sister Jean died of cancer during that time. “It was hard knowing I would not be at her funeral,” Sister Rita said.
Over time, she advanced from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane, but recurring pain led her to discover that all the cartilage in her ankle had disintegrated. Her ankle had to be fused to her leg, which would make it permanently rigid.
“It took a long time for me to say, ‘Thank you God,’” she said. But her faith and her belief that “good things come out of terrible things” led her to the next ministry she loved, as a chaplain at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “I never really applied for a job, it was just something I had to do,” she said.
She handled the emergency calls of deaths, traumas and accidents, meaning she was on call every day. “A 16-year-old committed suicide on his birthday,” she said. “I went to the hospital to meet his mother. I didn’t know what she looked like, but I knew I would know who she was. I stood at the door and opened my arms to her, and she fell into my arms.”
“Since I was the only Catholic chaplain, I was called instead of a priest,” she said. “I was privileged to baptize 200 babies as they were dying.”
She served at the hospital from 1992-99, then came to minister to the elderly and sick at St. Patrick, where she was already a parishioner.
“I loved it, just to see their faces light up when you see them,” she said. “They yearn for the sacraments.”
When Father Waris came to St. Patrick’s in 1999, he thought, “If you take care of the poor and elderly, there’s a chance you will succeed. I found there was no one person visiting the sick and the shut-ins,” he said. When Sister Rita left Children’s Hospital, she asked Father Waris what she should do next. “I said God put you right in my lap,” he said. “She always thinks of others first.”
One day, Father Waris decided to join Sister Rita on one of her visits to a nursing home. “You’d think I was walking in with the pope,” he said. “Everybody in that nursing home knew who she was.”
Paula Duke met Sister Rita in the 1980s when they were in a master’s program together through Loyola University, and they began a conversation of their shared love for Shantivanam prayer house in Kansas run by Father Ed Hayes. Sister Rita said her first visit to Shantivanam in 1972 changed her life.
“It was like the air was different,” she said. “I got to know Father Ed Hayes, we became good friends. It changed my whole spiritual life. Oneness with God became supremely important.”
Duke said Sister Rita has been an inspiration in her life. “Her faith was tested in a lot of ways,” Duke said. Up until her health forced her to come home to the Mount, Sister Rita was still visiting a great number of elderly and sick people, “who were probably younger and healthier than her,” Duke said. “She was working on an exit strategy by recruiting people to take her place. That’s typical of her.”
Sister Judy met Sister Rita in 1987 while attending a workshop in Kansas City. “She worked in the building and her office was filled with birds,” she said. “When I visited her apartment in Kansas City, it was filled with knickknacks and pictures of people who are really close to her, and everything had a story,” Sister Judy said. “Her apartment was set up so she could have birds, flowers and be connected to the sky and nature. That’s so important to her. You don’t fence her in. She’s always open to life and all people.”
In recent years, Sister Rita was in pain all the time, but she kept on going and remained “zesty,” Sister Judy said. “She always thinks of others,” she said. Sister Judy visited Sister Rita at Maple Mount this summer, where she noticed Sister Rita’s concern for the employees and other sisters.
“She was talking about the residents as if she weren’t one,” Sister Judy said.
Sister Rita has so many friends who write her that she can’t answer all her mail. “The support of my friends in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri is amazing,” she said.
One of her side ministries she began were portrayals of Mary as an older woman, Mother Teresa, and a pantomime dressed as a clown called “Eucharist.”
“I started thinking, how long do you think Mary lived? What was she like? My imagination kicked in. I think she suffered terribly with Jesus, then lived a wonderful life,” Sister Rita said. “She worked with the apostles, because only she could teach them aspects of Jesus that no one else would know. People loved it.”
During her days at St. Patrick’s, once a month Father Waris had her give a reflection during Mass. “I’m not supposed to do that, but if you don’t change, how will people ever learn?” Father Waris said. “People really looked forward to her homilies.”
Father Waris said ministering with Sister Rita was an answer to a prayer. “I feel like I know a saint,” he said. “If not, I don’t know how you get there.”
By Dan Heckel