Wake Reflection for Sister Rita Redmond
From Ecclesiastes: “I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life. For every (person), moreover, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of all (their) labor is a gift of God. I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it.” This is part of the first reading we will hear tomorrow, a reading Rita chose. How appropriately it describes her life.
“Lil” Rita Ruth Redmond was born prematurely on Monday, September 29, 1930 at Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott, KS and became the only child of William Alphonsus and Josephine Theresa Gees Redmond. I wonder if it was a foreshadowing of things to come that Fort Scott happens to be in Bourbon County? In a letter to relatives soon after Rita’s birth, her mother describes her “…baby sure is cute. She has small bones and is fat. Round face, blue eyes, light brown hair real fine, and a dimple in her cheek when she smiles.” Because of a prior surgery Josephine had, the doctor was doubtful that the baby she was carrying would live; so, even before she was born, Rita was consecrated to Our Lady of Lourdes, a title that would prove to be a good omen for her in later life.
Because of her mother’s precarious health and the uncertainty surrounding Rita’s arrival, her birth caused quite a public sensation to the point where, as her mother recounts in a letter to her sister: “One of the phone operators came up to see for herself yesterday so she could satisfy the public. She said they were doubting their word for it.”
Rita’s baptism took place on Sunday, October 12, 1930 at St. Patrick’s Church in Walnut, KS. Her mother recalls the event in these words: “We had the baby baptized Sunday and named her “Rita Ruth” and we will call her “Rita.” She is just “lil” and so we gave her a “lil” name.
The Redmonds lived on a farm in southeast KS near the town of Walnut. Her father had to leave school quite early in his life to take over the farm after his father became ill, but he valued education as did his wife. In a later writing, Rita states: “Both parents read to me from my infancy. Later, Dad did the supper dishes so I could study. My school work always came first.”
Rita’s mother, Josephine, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and became bedfast when Rita was six (6) years old, around 1936. Rita and her dad took care of her mother until her death in 1958. Thus was born in Rita a special devotion to the sick and disabled as well as a special love for her father. Rita recounts a special memory from her childhood. “When I was quite small, I was ‘helping’ Daddy plant seed potatoes. There was no running water in the garden, so as we walked to the house, our hands were dirty, as only potato juice and dirt together can make them. I made some remark about how dirty our hands were. Daddy took my hand in his, looked at it, and said ‘Beautiful hands are those that do the work of the noble, the good and the true.’ This has been my guide from then on, especially since I saw my Dad live that saying every day of his life. Even though my hands now show the effects of arthritis, I don’t mind because they look exactly like Daddy’s.” The feeling was mutual, as Daddy wrote in a letter to Rita in 1961: “As you have a birthday coming up real soon I will try to let you know that you have a daddy that still loves and thinks lots and often of the best little pal I ever had.”
Because Al and Josephine wanted a quality, Catholic education for their daughter, when Rita was fourteen (14), they made arrangements to sell their farm and move to Paola, KS where Al would work for the Ursuline Sisters and Rita would attend Ursuline Academy. They were housed in rooms on the lower level of the Motherhouse. As Rita describes it “…my parents gave up their home and completely uprooted their lives so that I could have a quality education.” She knew it was the right move because…”The first thing I saw as we approached Ursuline for the first time was the large sign ‘Ursuline Convent of Our Lady of Lourdes.’” To Rita’s extended family, her former students and her many friends, we offer you our sincere sympathy and the promise of our love and prayers.
The idea of religious life came early to Rita. “When I was about three years old my parents took me with them (no babysitters in those days) to the Reception ceremony of a Sister of Mercy. After that I frequently put a towel around my head and lay face down on the floor under the dining room table. (Prostration was part of the Reception ceremony.) When I was in about the first grade I remember sitting on Daddy’s lap and telling him I wanted to be a Sister when I grew up. I still remember his response, ‘That would make me happy.’” Her desire to be a Sister began to come to fruition when she entered the Ursuline community in Paola on April 24, 1949. She was received, and yes, prostration was part of the ceremony, on October 21, 1949 along with classmates, Sisters Judith Osthoff and Celine Leeker. She became known, as she said ‘not by chance,’ in religion as Sister Mary de Lourdes. They made temporary vows on August 21, 1951 and final vows on August 21, 1954. To Sisters Judith, Celine, and their MSJ classmate, Sister Rosalin Thieneman, we extend our sympathy and offer you our prayerful support.
Sister Rita’s first years of teaching were at the old St. Patrick’s School (now Holy Trinity) in Paola; this so that she could live at the Motherhouse and continue to care for her mother. Teaching was the love of Sister Rita’s life. When asked to enumerate some of the recognitions she had received in her life, she responded: “I presume you mean recognitions like being honored for volunteer work at Lakemary Center…Those were nice, but not nearly as important as the smiles, hugs and love of the children and young people I taught.” One of her former students from her Paola days wrote to Sister Rita in 2000 and said, in part: I am writing this letter to you because I don’t want you to leave this earth without knowing how very important you have been in my life…I think how hard it must have been for you to have your mother ill and crippled for so many years. I know how you nursed and loved her. What a blessing you were for her. You have also been my blessing and I needed to tell you. I would not have known God’s love as I do were it not for your …giving it to me so generously.”
Her beginning years of teaching in the old St. Pat’s were an adventure in living. Some of her recollections paint the picture. “When I first went to St. Pat’s, the rooms were heated with gas stoves. Those near the stove roasted and the rest froze. By rotation we survived and lost no one to fire or pneumonia.” After her mother died in 1958, Sister Rita moved from elementary school in Paola to high school at Bishop Miege in Roeland Park. She taught Latin and English and was just as giving and solicitous for her high school students as she had been for the little ones. One of her students, Paul Keenan, became a Jesuit priest and wrote to Sister in 1978. “…I want to say thanks not only because you were one of the early religious that I admired and who encouraged me way back when to be a priest if I wanted to be, and who all along dealt with me very honestly about that conviction – but also and more importantly because you were there at a time when I really needed someone to reach out to me in love and friendship and to get me moving toward becoming a loving person. My adolescence was a good one, but it was also long, limited – and hell. I could easily have become a really messed up person had there not been people like you to be patient and loving and warm.”
After nine (9) years of teaching in Paola, nine (9) years at Bishop Miege and a year teaching third and fourth grade at Sacred Heart School in Bonner Springs, Sister Rita came to Lakemary Center, the love of her life, as Coordinator of Educational Materials. She would spend the rest of her years in education, from 1969 to 2001, ministering to children and adults with mental disabilities. While in this position, she also worked for the Eastern Kansas Special Education Cooperative in their Instruction Materials Center. Lakemary adopted a new logo, that of a child reaching for a star that had a heart at its center. In commenting on this new logo, Sister Rita writes: “This could well have been the logo twenty-five years ago when Lakemary opened. The founders – all those who helped bring Lakemary from an idea to reality – and the first staff, were reaching for a star – a goal not yet clearly defined, but one that was exciting, beautiful, wonderful and good; a goal with love at its center…I often wear a sweatshirt that says, ‘I love Lakemary kids.’ And I do! My life has been enriched by each child/adult that I’ve met – by their simple love and trust, by their willingness to try and try again and by their joy.”
In 2001, Sister Rita retired to the Motherhouse in Paola and became involved in community ministry, taking care of the dining room and using her writing skills to prepare reflections and intercessions. After our merger in 2008, she moved to the MSJ Villa in 2009 to begin taking part in the Powerhouse of Prayer until her peaceful passing on the evening of Monday, September 3. To all of the Villa staff and to the staff of Hospice who have all provided such excellent care for Sister Rita, we offer our abundant gratitude and our sympathy.
As I prepared this reflection, I asked the Sisters in Kansas who could not be here, if they had anything they would like to share. Many recalled her devotion to her family and her love of children. Sister Kathleen Condry talked of her wisdom. “Rita was very wise about what to get involved in and what to stay out of. Several times, when a conflict was brewing in the vicinity where Rita found herself, I heard her say, ‘Oh dear, I go now.’ And she would just waltz on out.”
Sister Pat replied: “I thought of two (2) things which would be a testament to the kind of loving, nurturing teacher she was. One was of a former student who said she had done something wrong as a child and Sr. de Lourdes looked at her kindly and said ‘Child of grace, what were you thinking?!’ The other incident happened when she had gone to the emergency room in Paola after falling. This man with long hair and tattoos was in the room… he was either a nurse or an EMT. He knew that she was an Ursuline sister and started asking her if she had ever taught at Bishop Miege. Of course she said yes, and he started telling her about his Latin teacher, Sr. de Lourdes, and did she know where she was. Rita smiled and said ‘Do you know who I am?’ Then she put her hands up to frame her face (because he would only have seen her all covered up) and she said, ‘I’m Sr. de Lourdes.’ He was amazed and said to her ‘You were the one who believed in me!’ When no one else saw the good in him, she did, and he never forgot that. She put her hand up to the side of his face and he started crying. I had tears in my eyes, as did everyone else in the ER. It was just a glimpse of what an impact she had on children.”
Yes, Sister Rita, you have had an impact on children, on adults, especially on us your sisters. You have “recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life.” Now, “eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of (your) labor” as you sit at the heavenly banquet, for truly you are “a gift of God.”
Sister Kathleen Dueber
Sept. 5, 2012