Sister Mary Rita Carney, MM

Born: May 31, 1921
Entered: July 2, 1940
Died: December 8, 1996

On December 8, 1996, the patronal feast of her entrance group, Sister Mary Rita Carney (formerly Sister Mary Rita Damien) died as quietly and unassumingly as she had lived after a short illness.

Rita’s twin sister, Betty Carney, accompanied Rita – as family, attendant and friend. When together they were Yin and Yang – the bond between them strong and affectionate. It was the presence of Betty, the pastors and the numerous friends and co-workers from St. Angela’s parish in Pacific Grove that supported Rita in her final illness and also surprised her no end. Nancy Thomas of the Western Region, was with Rita and Betty during the weeks of hospitalization, and met these many supporters and friends whose outpouring of respect, sincere love and solicitation for Rita was so strong.

Rita was born on May 31, 1921 in Medford, Massachusetts to Margaret Griffith and Henry Carney. She attended Locke Elementary School in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, Junior High West, one month in Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Grammar School in Forest Hills, Long Island and high school at St. Agnes in Rockville Center. These early years in a nurturing family instilled in Rita a deep commitment to her faith and a love of theology which she later pursued with vigor.

Eight days after graduating from High School, Rita entered Maryknoll on July 2, 1940. She was first professed in 1943 (March 7) and finally professed on the same day in 1946. From 1945-50 Rita attended New York Hospital, the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and earned her degree in medical technology. Rita was subsequently assigned to the Maryknoll Sisters hospital in Pusan, Korea. Betty shared an anecdote treasured in the Carney family regarding Rita’s Korea assignment. When teenagers, the girls were being confirmed in St. James Church, Arlington, Massachusetts by the then Bishop Spellman. At a certain point in the ceremony, Bishop Spellman stopped angrily and told the students they were the worst confirmation class he had ever encountered.

Years later, as chaplain of the United States Armed Forces, the now Cardinal Spellman visited the Pusan clinic where Rita was stationed. Rita had all she could do to restrain herself from telling the Cardinal she had “made it” despite being in the worst of confirmation classes!

Rita remained in Korea for four years until ill health required a stateside assignment in 1956 to Queen of the World Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri where she performed the duties of both X-ray and medical technologist for the next ten years. Her associate from that period and close friend, Maryknoll Sister Jean Snyder, recalls Rita as an excellent, dedicated medical technologist who was vitally interested in the renewal of the liturgy. Both Jean and Rita were fortunate to attend several liturgical conferences in St. Louis during those years after Vatican Council II when such resource persons as Monsignor Hellriegel and Father Lucien Deiss were introducing the Church to new music and liturgical expressions.

After Queen of the World Hospital was closed in 1965, Rita took a refresher course in medtech at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, followed by work as a clinical bacteriologist in hospitals in Chicago, Boston and Stockton until 1970. It was at this time that Rita found the opportunity to follow her true love and passion: the study of God. She obtained a B.A. in Theology from Mundelein College in Chicago in 1972 and subsequently began religious education work in the Stockton, California diocese while continuing her studies. In 1974, Rita obtained a Master of Arts in the Teaching of Religion from the University of San Francisco and then immersed herself totally in the parish work of religious education, home visiting and liturgy preparation where she discovered the richness of her charism.

Her personal love for learning was legend in her family and in her pursuits as a Maryknoll Sister. Her studies made her an expert and were an inspiration to those who knew her. They kept her open to new procedures in medicine and new insights in theology which strengthened the living faith given to her by her parents and fostered in her early years. Her gifts were best recognized in her dedication to small Christian communities and their development in the parish. She blossomed in sharing Scripture and faith with small groups of Maryknoll Sisters and with her countless friends from the parish in which she was ministering at the time.

A year in Pastoral Ministry at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California (1977-1978) prepared and propelled her on a slight detour when she was elected regional coordinator for the Western Region (1979-1981). These were years of transition for the region, and Rita led the sisters with compassion and focus through unsettled times. Upon completion of her term, Rita accepted a position with the diocese of San Diego in the Office of Evangelization and Adult Education. In 1982, Rita was asked to be a staff member at the Maryknoll Sisters’ retirement center in Monrovia where she served for four years and is still remembered fondly.

Once again, the call to pastoral ministry led her back north to the Stockton, California diocese for six years as director of Religious Education. After a renewal period when Rita pursued the Creation Spirituality program at Berkeley, visited the Center and stayed for several months at the Waterbury House in Connecticut, Rita decided that as much as she loved her sister Betty, who lives on Long Island, she herself was actually “a Californian at heart.”

Now of retirement age, Rita searched out where she could still be of service in the way she loved most. A priest friend in the Monterey Diocese extended an invitation to her, and Rita volunteered as pastoral assistant for the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) at St. Angela’s parish in Pacific Grove where she ministered until her death.

In our Western Region community, Rita was always quietly but alertly participative. She had a keen mind, and asked perceptive questions and offered ideas and responses that indicated what a careful reader and thinker she was. Through Rita’s parish friends, we learned of the dynamism of her presence and leadership as a pastoral minister, her commitment to team ministry and to the strengthening of small groups as the foundation for parish life and growth.

Rita’s interest was always people. Those who saw her apartment in Pacific Grove (a fashionable California town) were astonished at her own personal austerity and simple life style. What became most evident in her last illness was her deep love of God. It was obvious that she had integrated her theological studies with her spiritual life. She embraced suffering with calm, making no requests except to be called “Sister,” and accepting with quiet gratitude all that was done for her. She was overwhelmed by the care and attention of the hospital and hospice staffs, her friends from St. Angela’s, the people from San Andreas, her Maryknoll Sisters and especially her twin sister, Betty.

The following quotations taped to the telephone table in Rita’s apartment express the depth of her spirituality, and the totality of her ministry:

“Through the law, we do not try to rid ourselves of problems, we attempt to correct them. We do not deal with pathologies, we deal with persons. No matter what they have done, no matter what they are accused of they carry in their earthenware jar the image of God This is their most basic identity, even when it is not most obvious. As Christians, says Chesterton, we must reach out to touch them not with a bargepole, but with a benediction.” (Rev. Russel E. Smith)

“There is an energy in us which makes things happen when the paths of other persons touch ours and we have to be there and let it happen. When the time of our particular sunset comes, our thing, our accomplishment, won’t really matter a great deal. But the clarity and care with which we have loved others will speak with vitality of the great gift of life we have been for each other.” (Monks of Weston Priory)

Rita’s quick departure from this life leaves her sister, Betty, and all of us with a sense of loss. What remains is our profound gratitude for her steady, consistent witness of the Gospel embodied in her life and the Maryknoll Sisters’ charism of generous, selfless service to every person in whom she recognized the human face of God.

We are thankful to our Maryknoll brother, Father Michael Duggan, for presiding at this Eucharist of the Resurrection for our Sister Rita.