Sister Rae Ann O'Neill, MM
Born: March 25, 1936
Entered: September 2, 1960
Died: June 10, 2011
When asked which of Mother Mary Joseph’s ideals of a Maryknoll Sister has grasped your heart Rae Ann replied, “I think that image of the candle ‘one lights the other’ (referring to James Russell Lowell’s poem Yussouf). That whole idea of being a light to one another. Of course, I can’t say that I am always doing that but I think the idea is trying to be a light rather than to dim the light with being critical or by being negative. I think that is important, and also having the saving grace of a sense of humor.” For all of us who have shared life with Rae Ann she was a contagious light among us.
On June 10, 2011, as Sisters were gathering for morning liturgy, Sister Rae Ann O’Neill received the Sacrament of the Sick. Recent treatments for her illness were no longer effective and at 12:10 p.m., June 10, 2011, Rae Ann went home to God. Present by her bedside, on Residential Care IV were her brother John, her nephew Tim, and a number of Maryknoll Sisters, all praying quietly. Rae Ann was 75 years of age and had celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Maryknoll Sister in May 2010.
Rae Ann was born on March 25, 1936, in Princeton, New Jersey, to Mary E. (Delaney) and Raymond J. O’Neill. She had two brothers, John B. and Eugene T. O’Neill. Rae Ann was baptized a month after her birth in St. Anthony’s Parish, Hightstown, New Jersey, and graduated from Hightstown Grammar and High Schools. After earning her B.A. in secretarial science from St. Joseph College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1957, Rae Ann and two other classmates accepted an invitation to go as lay missioners to teach in a poor barrio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Following that, she worked for two years as a secretary at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque until 1960 when she entered Maryknoll. She received the religious name of Sister Marian Raymond. On June 24, 1963 she made her first Vows at our novitiate in Topsfield, Massachusetts. Returning to New York she lived at St. Teresa’s Convent while working in the Maryknoll Society Secretariat.
Rae Ann was assigned to Tanzania in 1965. During her six years there she assisted in the Shinyanga Commercial Institute which trained young men and women to be office workers throughout the country. Her specialty was bookkeeping but she helped in all aspects of the pioneer project. She was an expert driver and changer of flat tires, especially the day she changed one with a large group of zebras watching! During her time in Tanzania she returned to her baptismal name, Rae Ann, and gave up wearing the religious habit for lay clothes. She made her Final Vows on June 18, 1969, in Tanzania, Africa. The students appreciated her quiet and gentle ways and her efforts to speak Swahili.
On her return from Tanzania, Rae Ann worked as staff writer in the Maryknoll Sisters Communications Office. In 1974 she was appointed Secretary to the Office of the Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations. Msgr. Giovanni Cheli held the office at the time. She served as the Holy Sees’ representative to the U.N. on women’s issues. When she completed four years of service, Msgr. Cheli wrote, “I would like to express to you and the Maryknoll Sisters my very great appreciation and thanks for the exceedingly valuable contribution Sister Rae Ann O’Neill has rendered to our office. She has managed all tasks assigned to her efficiently and cheerfully. She served well as a member of the delegation of the Holy See to the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City.” At the end of her work in 1978, Sister Rae Ann received the Benemerenti Medal from Pope Paul VI which was given in recognition of exceptional accomplishment and service in Christian affairs. During this time she was an active member of the Eastern U.S. Region.
Rae Ann then studied at the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality, Holy Names College, Oakland, California. Deeply influenced by these studies, she shared them later in her ministries with women. In 1979, her wish to work in Latin America began in the Mexico/Guatemala Region with a refresher course in Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, and by getting acquainted with the life of the people and involvement of the Sisters in both countries. With three other Sisters she opened a house in Copilco/Santo Domingo, Mexico City, in a parish where the pastor had asked the Sisters to initiate Basic Christian Communities in a very poor sector. Sister Socorro Diaz de Leon was Mexican and shared the richness of the Mexican culture and the complexity of its history. Visiting with the people led to friendships, small meetings and small solutions, i.e., literacy classes for the women encouraging their participation. With the news of her mother’s illness, Rae Ann returned to the States to accompany her and in 1982 she worked part time as a staff writer and information officer in our Communications office, visiting her mother on weekends.
In 1990 Rae Ann was able to return to Guatemala and begin a new ministry with two other Sisters in El Milagro, Mexico, in the parish of Jesus the Worker. With 95,000 people, it was the largest parish in the archdiocese with one priest, bars, brothels, drugs and street gangs. Three indigenous rural villages were attached to the parish, and the Sisters placed priority there on the formation of delegates of the Word, catechists, and Eucharistic ministers. They started groups for the integral formation of women in both the town and the villages. Since the priest could only cover the villages one Sunday a month, the Sisters led the Celebrations of the Word until the lay delegates finished their preparation. Often they were asked, “Sister, who is celebrating Mass this week, you or Father?” They accompanied an indigenous woman for the official excavation of a clandestine cemetery and were able to accompany a group of returning refugees to Huehuetenango from Mexico. In 1994 they turned their ministries over to lay people.
In 1995, San Marcos Diocese made the Diocesan Program for Women a priority. Rae Ann was a motivating force in this formation program, facilitating teaching materials for bible studies, health tips, ecology and cosmology. She was adept at combining visual aids to illustrate difficult concepts. Rae Ann was a thoroughly modern communicator. From San Marcos she kept in touch with a sister parish, St. Ann’s, Bethany Beach, Delaware, and her home parish, St. Anthony’s, Hightstown, New Jersey. With pictures she would put a face on who was benefiting from St. Anthony’s and St. Ann’s generosity. One parishioner wrote that Rae Ann made very real the fact that the Church extends beyond the borders of the U.S.
Rae Ann’s last sixteen years were given to the women of the Diocese of San Marcos, Guatemala. She wrote, “We gather the women telling them that it is wonderful to be a woman and how important each one is. We encourage them to speak, that it is not enough to listen, and by speaking to make a wider circle. Rae Ann said, “The most important part of our work is our relationship with the women, encouraging them and being a support to them. The work is contagious. One group tells another and so it grows. My life has been enriched and my faith deepened. There is great poverty, especially in the rural areas, and this has helped me to live more simply. We look for ways to help the women learn and also ways to deal with their lives, very often marked by humiliation and violence.
In so many ways we know that Rae Ann has truly been a light. “As one lamp lights another nor grows less, so nobleness enkindles nobleness.”
We welcome and are happy to have with us today Rae Ann’s family and friends.
We also welcome and thank our Maryknoll brother, Father Dennis Moorman, M.M., who will preside at our Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial.