Sister Rose Marita Riordan
“I made myself all things to all people in order to save some at any cost and I do this for the sake of the Gospel, to have a share in its blessings. All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, intending to win. All the participants in the games go into strict training; they do this just to win a wreath that will wither away. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not train like a boxer beating the air. I run intent on winning, to get a crown that will last forever.”
— 1 Corinthians 9:22-26
Those gathered to celebrate Sister Rose Marita’s life have no doubt experienced the running speed and quickness with which she lived life. The sisters here referred to Sister Rose Marita as the “Energizer bunny.” In Woods Day Care, where she volunteered for years, they called her the “white tornado!” A former colleague at the day care wrote, “She was a remarkable woman who in her 80s could work circles around the rest of us,” said Sister Ann Casper in her commentary for Sister Rose Marita Riordan, who died on Sunday, March 19, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 95 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 78 years.
Others marveled at her agility, crawling around on the floor with the 2- and 3-year-olds. In more recent years, her speed caused her to fall a few times, which she attributed to “my feet getting ahead of the rest of me.”
At Providence Spirituality & Conference Center, she often pushed around a cart stacked with things she was working on (relics, greeting cards, votive candles, etc.). She liked to stand at the top of the sloping hallway between Providence Center and the church, push the car, let go and then race it to the bottom. And she always won!
Margaret Mary Riordan was born May 2, 1921, in Chicago, to Patrick Valentine and Kathryn Mary Ryan Riordan. Margaret Mary was one of eight siblings, four girls and four boys. Alice, Eileen and Bill survive her, while Rosaleen, Bernadette, John and James preceded her in death. When asked about her siblings in recent years, Rose Marita would say, “I have four up and four down.”
The Sisters of providence were her teachers at St. Mel in Chicago and in high school here at the Woods where she attended Providence Juniorate, graduating in 1939. She entered the Congregation on January 5, of that same year, and professed first vows and perpetual vows on Aug. 15, 1941, and 1947, respectively.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s degree in education from Indiana State University.
Prior to earning her degrees and after doing so, she taught and was principal in elementary schools in Indiana, California, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., for some 43 years. In between, she was assigned to the infirmary as an aide for one year and then as administrator for five. She also served as Sacred Heart provincial councilor for one year. Now if you’re doing the math, that’s 50 years in those ministries.
But wait, we also need to factor in Rose Marita’s 15 years at Woods Day Care/Pre-School after she retired from elementary education and her 11 years at Providence Spirituality & Conference Center (PSCC) and Linden Leaf Gifts after she retired from Woods Day Care! In all, 76 years of ministry! And of course, that’s not counting her other community service through the years, like being Church sacristan a few days a week, addressing 50 to 75 birthday cards a month for the Mission Advancement office, being a Eucharistic minister, cleaning and replacing the votive candles at Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Shrine, making the Saint Mother Theodore relics and a ton of baking, the fruits of which she shared.
I want to backtrack a bit though, to her time of ministry at Saint Therese School in Wilson, North Carolina, from 1962 to 1970, where she taught sixth, seventh and eighth-grades, was principal and superior. I talked with one of her former students, still a friend some 50 years later, who indicated that even as a seventh-grader, he knew she had a lot to do! That same student recalled that “Sister required a lot of me. How well that has served me in life along with the incredible example of her work ethic.” While in Wilson with Sisters Mary Ann McCauley and Therese Guerin Sullivan, they were given the task of integrating the two Catholic schools. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; they joined blacks in a march, past mounted machine guns and National Guard troops. Therese Guerin recalled that “it was the only time in my life I was spit at.”
The sisters were also adamant that they would integrate the convent as well, so the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an African-American community who staffed the school for blacks, moved into the Saint Therese convent. Many white parents withdrew their children from the school, one even offering the sisters several thousands of dollars if they would start another school, all white, of course.
In Rose Marita’s long life of ministry, no doubt she had many such extraordinary experiences, too many to mention here. However, let’s marvel not so much about her many years of ministry, as about the way she went about ministering. Let’s marvel at the way she didn’t just meet or greet people, she engaged them. If she met a stranger, the person was not that for long and many times, became a friend. Rose had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and at home. One observation was that Rose Marita was a spiritual director/companion even without credentials, relying on her innate empathy and common sense to help others, young or old, to navigate the rough spots of life.
I asked a few health care staff, “What is your fondest memory of Sister Rose Marita?” One replied without hesitation, “holding my baby boy in her arms at the day care.” Another remembered being off work for a short leave and when she returned, “Sister Rose gave me one of her big loaves of Irish Soda Bread, not one of the small ones.” Another recalled Rose Marita’s thoughtfulness in giving soda bread to staff members at Christmas time.
Deanna, the housekeeper at PSCC, was cleaning the outside area of the funeral/shrine doors and even though she’d cleaned thoroughly, she was dismayed that she couldn’t do anything about the dirt that was way too high for her to reach. It was suggested she put in a request to facilities. Deanna’s response was, “I want it done so that it’s really nice and clean for Sister Rose. I love her so much.”
In the days just prior to her death, the health care manager at Lourdes, R.N. Robin Royce, said that she had 12 phone calls one day – people asking to visit Rose Marita. Everyone who knew Rose Marita seemed to think they had a special relationship with her, because that’s just how she made you feel! Mandy at the center expressed it this way, “When Rose Marita asked you how you were doing, and you knew it was because she really cared. She was always working on something, always busy, yet she always had time to listen to me.”
Rose Marita is remembered as a storyteller. Now there are storytellers, and there are storytellers! She was the latter, with a phenomenal memory. Someone’s chance remark would remind Rose of a former student or a parent’s comment, or something that happened in the convent – usually funny – and she would supply all the minute details: Names, description of what happened, where it happened, what she was doing, and exactly the words that were said. She could easily have written several books of anecdotes.
Sister Mary Ann couldn’t pass up this opportunity to tell a story on Rose Marita. Again, at Wilson, when she and Rose Marita were going to town, Therese Guerin asked them to pick up her train ticket, which they did. When they were going back to the convent, Rose Marita said to Mary Ann, “Why don’t you tell her that the ticket wasn’t there.” Mary Ann replied, “I can’t do that; you know my face will give me away.” Pretending exasperation, Rose said, “Mary Ann, if you can’t lie, than just shut up!”
I doubt that there is anyone in the church who has not tasted Rose Marita’s famed Irish Soda Bread. She would literally bake at least 100 loaves when there was a Sisters of Providence Bake Sale and to supply Linden Leaf Gifts. I remember the first year she did it for the bake sale. People were not familiar with Irish Soda Bread and they kind of made a face when it was mentioned. They’d move on to buy something more familiar, like banana or pumpkin bread. Not to be deterred, the next year, Rose put half-slice samples of the bread on a plate, complete with a stick of butter and a knife! Sales picked up and ever after, people would make a beeline for the bake sale booth with one thought in mind: They hoped we had not run out of Sister Rose’s Irish Soda Bread.
In the last several months, Wednesdays became her baking day – all day – starting about 4 a.m.! And she had branched out, baking not just the soda bread, but banana bread (to use up the ripe bananas, of course), as well as a variety of cookies. By 6 a.m., things were baking and the aromas were wafting forth from the activity room kitchen and throughout Providence Hall. That’s what she was doing about two weeks ago, having called Mary Ann the night before to replenish her supplies of eggs and buttermilk. On that Wednesday morning, however, her 95-year-old body, with its recurrence of colon cancer, finally betrayed her and she was too tired to continue running the race. Her energy was depleted; in 10 days she would be attaining “that prize, that crown that will last forever.”
I’ll end this snapshot of Rose Marita’s long life by allowing those wise theologians and philosophers, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, to have the last word. Beth Collins, our Clinical Care Coordinator, shared a cartoon that she thought summarized perfectly how Rose Marita approached death and how she lived her life. I think you will agree. May it give us pause as we consider our own lives.
In the cartoon, a pensive Charlie Brown is sitting with Snoopy on a pier at the lake, looking out at the distant, beautiful horizon. Charlie Brown remarks, “Someday, we will all die, Snoopy!” Snoopy replies, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.”
Funeral services for Sister Rose Marita took place on Thursday, March 23, and Friday, March 24, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A Wake took place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., on Thursday, March 23, with Vespers at 4:30 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Friday, March 24.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Rose Marita in the comment section below.
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