Sister Rita Lerner (formerly Sister Edward Clare)
“My lover speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, let me see you, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.’”
The Word of God
— A reading from the Song of Songs (2:10-14)
Anyone who fondly recalls Sister Rita’s trademark greeting, “My love, my dove, my beautiful one, you look great in that purple sweater!” … or whatever item the friend happened to be wearing that day … will know why this scripture was chose, said Sister Maureen Abbott in her commentary for Sister Rita Lerner, who died Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 97 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 79 years.
Or perhaps, those who know her love for birds will remember that when she returned from a sabbatical where there was a bird aviary, it was her suggestion that led to a donor purchasing the aviary that still delights our health care residents.
Sister Rita was born Rita Lerner on December 5, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois, to Edward Lerner and Clara Hell Lerner. She had one sibling, younger brother Edward. She attended Saint Sylvester Elementary School in Chicago and Providence Juniorate at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, and graduated in 1938. She entered the novitiate on January 8, 1938, and professed vows on August 15, 1940, and made her final profession on August 15, 1946. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1961, and a master’s of education from Ball State University in 1971.
In a brief autobiography, Sister Rita tells of the love she experienced growing up in a close family during the years of the Great Depression. Her father owned a grocery store but lost it because he gave so much credit to people who were then not able to pay their bills. To make ends meet, the family began making baskets to sell, causing her worry when she went away to school, since it would be one fewer person to help out. Nonetheless, she notes the because her father was a well-educated man, “his help and interest gave me a great desire to continue studying in order to be well prepared to assist others in need.” She notes that her mother’s “beautiful attitude toward life and love of all people did much for me. The desire to help others to see their worth came largely from her because she saw only the good in others and treated everyone with great dignity.” This influence was clearly evident in Rita’s ministry. A Vigo County librarian expressed it this way, “We’re sure all your ‘ladies’ appreciate your sunny smile and loving ways.” Rita’s desire to honor her parents was clearly evident when she was given their names, being known for many years as Sister Edward Clare.
The early years of Rita’s ministry were as a middle grade teacher. Her very first mission was in Washington, D.C., where she taught at Saint Ann’s during the war years and then returned to her hometown of Chicago before her second novitiate. She must have been the envy of her band when she was next called for Saint Ambrose in Hollywood, California; who else saw both east and west coasts before turning 30? She then returned to Chicago for two decades of teaching ministry in inner city schools during an era of change and unrest. Despite the stresses of living in neighborhoods racked by violence, from her point of view, these were good years. She recalls, “I spent about 25 years teaching black children and we had a fine school spirit and a joy in this mission.” Possibly due to her own eyesight problems, Rita was especially sensitive to students who had trouble reading. She took specialized classes to improve her teaching of reading, as well as a course at DePaul University on adapting instruction to African-American culture. In preparation for her studies at Ball State, she wrote “I am eager to interest children in reading, and I feel the library can be of immense help in this pursuit.” It was this dream that set the course for her next phase of ministry as an elementary school librarian.
Rita was a lifelong learner. Pun intended. Not only did she exemplify the Lerner family traits of kindness and generosity, but the usual meaning of the term is borne out by her record. Like most Sisters of Providence of the time, she accumulated credits at an agonizingly slow pace, summer after summer. Once she had her diploma firmly in hand, she branched out and took advantage of continuing education courses in scripture and ministry here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. One teacher’s comments read: “You have an inquisitive mind searching for continued religious education.”
In 1983, she made a major change of ministry by moving to Saint Mary’s to serve the retirement community, first providing outpatient services in health care, then serving as Activity Director. Once again, she prepared herself for this work by taking courses to become qualified to lead physical exercises for sisters confined to the dementia wing of the Infirmary. Along the way, she never gave up her belief in the power of books to expand horizons, a belief that prompted her to take up the ministry that so many of us will most remember her for – making a great variety of books and tapes available to retired sisters here at the Woods. Sister Kay Manley, administrator at Owens at the time, commented “I can still see her wheeling the card down the hall and stopping to visit with each sister to see what she would like.” Rita was also in charge of the collection of music and spirituality tapes and made these available to the sisters as well.
Through arrangements with the Vigo County Public Library, the bookmobile paid regular visits, so her relationships with the library staff became another aspect of Rita’s ministry. As she had only a small cart to transport the books directly to the sisters’ rooms, she asked her friend, Eric Ewald, the driver of the bookmobile van, to look around the basement of the main library to see if there was an old book cart she could use so the sisters could see the books and tapes and choose the ones they liked. He reported that nothing like that was available, but he and his family and friends had collected the $269 needed to buy a new standard library cart for her. When she was invited to give a talk to the library staff at an in-service meeting, Rita solicited comments from the sisters to help them know how much their work was appreciated. Here’s what Sister Constance Greig had to say to the staff (certainly applicable to Rita as well): “I am immeasurably indebted to those who provide books for us. Hours that otherwise would seem endless pass quickly and happily with the reading of mysteries, intrigue and romance.”
On the weekends, Rita also welcomed visitors to Providence Center, proudly showing off Our Lady of Providence Shrine, the heritage room, the dioramas, and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. A note from Joanne Bibb, who brought a group from Hoopston, Illinois, once again illustrates the influence Rita had on others: “Thank you for the wonderful tour you gave our group yesterday. The tour was really a spiritual journey for all of us. However, what made it even more delightful was your sunny personality. You are truly an inspiration!”
Eventually, Rita herself gained the official designation of “retired.” Here’s how she described that phase of ministry: “Being a retired sister here at the Woods is a foretaste of heaven. The beauty and spiritual advantages and above all the Christ-like sisters continually show God’s Providence.” True to form, she signed up with Sister Rose Michele Boudreau to learn painting. You can see her work hanging in Sister Betty Koressel’s office. The last decade of her life, she became a health care resident with a renewed and intensified ministry of prayer, continually (quote) “thanking God for His beautiful creation and praying for all the needs of people all over the world, asking God to bring justice, charity and peace to the world.” Yes, the time of pruning has come, but we still hear the song of the dove in our land.
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