Sister Corita Herrgen, MM
Born: February 10, 1909
Entered: December 7, 1930
Died: September 14, 1999
Sister Mary Corita Herrgen died peacefully in the Residential Care Unit at Maryknoll, New York on Tuesday, September 14, 1999. She was ninety years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 68 years.
Rita Anna Herrgen was born February 10, 1909 in Dayton, Ohio to William Herrgen and Albina Bergenon Herrgen. She was one of four children. The family moved to Stamford, Connecticut where Rita attended St. John’s Elementary School and Sacred Heart Academy High School in Stamford. She attended business school for one semester and then sought employment as a clerical worker. She was employed first as an office clerk and later as assistant manager of the sales and service department of Yale Manufacturing Company in Stamford. Rita became interested in Maryknoll after reading The Field Afar and hearing a talk given by a missionary priest from China. She wrote to Mother Mary Joseph inquiring about the requirements for entrance.
Rita entered Maryknoll on December 7, 1930 at Maryknoll, New York. At Reception, she received the religious name of Sister Mary Corita, the name she would retain for the rest of her life. She made her First Profession of Vows June 24, 1933 and her Final Profession of Vows on the same date in 1936 at Maryknoll. Sister Corita completed her high school education at the Venard in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania and then attended the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City where she received the Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 with a major in mathematics.
Sister Corita was assigned to Manchuria in 1937. She taught high school in Dairen at the Maryknoll Academy until December 1941 when she was interned with the other Maryknoll Sisters who were U.S. citizens. Sister Corita recalled the time leading up to her internment: “For months, in fact, ever since the U.S. government had ordered evacuation in October 1940 everything became very tense. The freezing of our money in July 1941 intensified this feeling and we had many discussions amongst ourselves, planning which could be the best way to act under any condition that we could conceive might possibly exist. Regulations became stricter, feelings became tenser and then finally they snapped. We first heard news of the war from a woman who came to school the morning of the eighth of December to tell us that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. About quarter to nine the morning of the twelfth I was in chapel when I heard a commotion in the yard. By the shuffle of boots and the clanging of swords, I knew that the hour had come. Upon opening the door I saw eight policemen who had come to take six Sisters… We were given the order to take our passport, money and any belongings we could carry as a bus would come for us in half an hour.” After being interned in Manchuria for nearly one year, the Sisters were transported to Shanghai in September 1942 where they were interned until December 1943 when they were finally repatriated aboard the M.S. Gripsholm.
In 1944, Sister Mary Corita was assigned to Hawaii where she would spend most of the next 45 years. She wrote: “I felt right at home among the vastly Asian population of the islands. My experience in Manchuria helped me to understand and to love my students and their families.” Sister taught elementary school at Punahou for twelve years and then became a high school teacher at Maryknoll High School. She taught Mathematics, Biology, Latin and even Mechanical Drawing and Home Economics at times. Sister was also coordinator of the Math Resource Center. She served as both House and Regional bookkeeper for many years. She is remembered for her patience as a teacher. No matter what difficulties the students experienced in the classroom, Sister Corita maintained her calm, peaceful manner and continued to work with the students until they were able to understand the lesson.
In 1975, Sister retired from formal classroom teaching and did tutoring of high school students concentrating on those who were experiencing not only difficulty in mathematics but also struggling with a new language. She also did home visiting in Sacred Heart parish focusing on the elderly who were in their own homes as well as those who were nursing home residents. In 1989 due to health problems, Sister made the decision to leave Hawaii. In her request for assignment to Monrovia after 45 years in Hawaii, she wrote to the Central Governing Board: “I once read that youth is for activity and old age for contemplation. As God is closing this chapter in my book of life, God is opening up another that will hold many new graces and joys.” She returned to the Center to Assisted Living in 1994 and moved to Residential Care in May 1999.
Sister Corita loved to recall her early life at Maryknoll in the 1930’s. In 1996 she shared her written reflections on Mother Mary Joseph. She wrote: “One day Mother was giving us a talk on Samuel:
‘Speak Lord thy servant heareth.’ Mother stopped, pondered for a few seconds and then said, Sisters, I think this is my favorite passage in the Old Testament. If we reflect for a moment it appears as if it was Samuel’s way of saying his own yes to God and it was this passage that appealed most to Mother. On special occasions Mother had a custom of giving the Sister a card with a handwritten message on it. For my profession, I received a card from Mother with the text: “I can do all things in God who strengthens me”. I thought that this is really the essence of Mother for me. She was a woman of deep faith and courage which enabled her to accomplish great things for Maryknoll.
We offer our loving condolences to Sister Mary Corita’s family and friends. We welcome our Maryknoll brother, Fr. Francis Diffley who will preside at this Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial as we praise and thank God for the gift of our Sister Mary Corita’s life.