Sister Rita Owczarek, MM

Born: October 12, 1917
Entered: October 31, 1947
Died: June 16, 2013

Today we celebrate the life of Sr. Rita Owczarek, remembered and loved for her simple, unpretentious life and her generous gift of self to all, but especially to the Nicaraguan people and her Maryknoll family. As she lived, so she died on June 16, 2013, enjoying the simple pleasures of good companionship and chocolate. 

Rita was thoughtful of others all her life.  The Maryknoll Residential Care staff was quick to notice this special quality in Rita during the years she was a resident of MRC.  The staff also remembers her for her special sense of humor and approachability.

Rita Hedwig Owczarek was born on October 12, 1917, in Chicago, IL to Joseph and Constance Owczarek.  One of ten children, Rita was raised in St. Casimir’s Parish and graduated in 1935 from Holy Family Academy in Chicago. She took evening classes from 1939-1945 while working to help support her family before entering Maryknoll on October 31, 1947 in Valley Park, MO. At Reception she received the religious name of Sister Constance Marie. She made her First Profession in Valley Park, MO on May 8, 1950, studied at Mary Immaculate School of Nursing receiving her nursing degree in 1953, and made her Final Profession in May of the same year at the Motherhouse in Ossining, NY.

Rita’s first assignment was to Nicaragua, a land of lakes and volcanoes, of poets, poor peasants and privileged landowners. After language study in Bolivia in 1953, Rita arrived in Siuna, Nicaragua, a small, isolated town in the middle of the jungle where the Maryknoll Sisters ran a school and clinic. Rita was the dispensary nurse from 1954–1969 providing health instruction, immunizations, emergency care, treatment and medication for the various ailments of the poor in Siuna and surrounding communities.

After a brief assignment in 1969 to Guatemala, as clinic nurse in San Miguel Acatan, Rita returned to Nicaragua in 1970 to serve as clinic nurse in Miralagos, Managua.  After the floods in Miralagos, Rita served those re-settled on the outskirts of the city.  She used the front room of the Sisters’ small house to offer health care to the people. Following the devastating earthquake of 1972 in Managua, thousands more were resettled in the area swelling the need for schools, healthcare and pastoral care.  In this community, Rita continued to serve the poor.  Over the years, Rita became deeply acculturated in her use of Nicaraguan sayings and comfortable in her relationships with the people. She was adept in her ability to get things done the Nicaraguan way (much like the persistent woman before the judge in the gospel story) and noted for her delightful humor in the face of difficulty.  Most Nicaraguans thought she was Nica and puro pinolero just like them. She used the lessons she learned from the poor to teach student doctors and new Maryknoll Sisters the language of the poor, the dignity of the poor and how to open their hearts in service with the poor.

In 1974, Rita returned to the Maryknoll Center and was assigned to work on the nursing staff of Bethany House, the Congregation’s residence for elderly and infirm Sisters at that time. When she returned to Nicaragua in 1976, the whole country was in political turmoil.  As revolutionary forces gathered strength, Rita worked in Pueblo Nuevo in community health education and pastoral work in the local parish until 1979.  At the start of the revolutionary war, during 6 weeks of intense fighting and bombing raids in Leon, Rita and six other Maryknoll Sisters ran a makeshift refugee center to shelter 500 people, mostly women and children.  During this time all shared fear and courage, pooled resources to turn sparse provisions into meals for many. Sister Rita and Sr. Patricia Edmiston provided very basic health care for the people and served the needs of the dispossessed.  After the war, Rita remained in Leon to work at the government hospital.

Rita’s generous gift of self cost her dearly in recurring struggles with health issues. Rita accepted the prescribed treatment and knew that it was her self-awareness and faithful efforts at wellness that allowed her continued presence and service among the people and Maryknoll Community she loved. After her retirement from active ministry in the early 1980s and for the next 26 years in Nicaragua, Rita discovered that “the most meaningful ministry is the natural one of continued presence accompanying the people.” Rita made it her ministry to visit the sick, offering support and prayer for their comfort; to guide and translate for visiting solidarity groups and she was always eager to accompany any Maryknoll Sister who might be alone in her ministry for a time.  Rita’s ministry took her to meetings, conferences, weddings, funerals, fiestas, anniversaries and protests for justice and peace. She daily practiced what she preached about the gospel message of good news to the poor. Sister Rita was known among Maryknollers as a “missioner’s missioner.” In a letter to family and friends, she wrote: “We come as missioner to spread the Word of God, to insist that the people be treated with dignity, to help them help themselves, to see themselves as subjects and not objects in life and in relationships.”   For 50 years, Rita offered her life selflessly in service to the needs of the poor, the sick and the lonely of Nicaragua.  She endeavored to learn from them, never failing “to admire and attempt to live, the deep faith and hope of the people through countless catastrophes of nature,” political corruption and war. She did not forget them in her retirement. She took Nicaragua and Maryknoll employees for her prayer ministry.

As “keeper of the oral history” of that special relationship between the people of Nicaragua and the Maryknoll Sisters, Rita holds a special place of honor. Rita never sought or coveted that honor. Rather she found ways to make life more spontaneous through funny skits and surprising treats.  She sought to make people feel a bit more precious through her presence in their lives. As the original “bag lady” in our midst, she was able to bring forth, from her ever-ready bags of carefully collected and freely shared treasures, a wisdom and a love tailored to the needs of those around her.

Today we welcome Rita’s many friends present with us. We also welcome and thank Maryknoll Father Ernest Brunelle for celebrating our Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial with us today.