Sister Rita Black
“Who is a gardener? She is a painter of the Lord, a musician of God, a poet of the Almighty. She is a writer of music in the colors and plants called flowers. No one, be she saint or sinner, atheist or Communist, can pass a flower garden without stopping. A person’s soul, a whole nation’s soul is expressed in a garden.
“Who is a flower gardener? She is an utterly delicate person. Flowers are her life. She knows each one tenderly, knows the ways and habits, the likes and dislikes of each one. But a gardener is more. She is someone who gives beauty to others – not just ordinary beauty, but God’s beauty. And if she did not know God before she became interested in flowers, she will come to know Him very soon if she perseveres in her growing and tending of flowers. Who is a flower gardener? She is a person who sooner or later falls utterly in love with God. No one can approach flowers reverently without shouting her love for God. She who grows flowers gives God to humankind and by God is possessed.”
— A reflection on Ecclesiastes 11:3-6 (Catherine Doherty)
As I was paging through my Bible to get to Proverbs, I found this reflection, and realized that this said what I wanted to say about Rita even better than the section about the Valiant Woman, said Sister Mary Ann Phelan in her commentary for Sister Rita Black, who died on Thursday, March 30, 2017, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 89 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 71 years.
Rita Mae Black was born on December 18, 1927, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to James Frank Black and Marie Elizabeth Black. She was one of five children, two brothers, James and Donald, and one sister, Lois, all of whom preceded her in death. We are pleased that her other sister, Mary Kay is here with us today as we celebrate the life of God’s gardener, our own Sister Rita.
Rita attended both elementary and high school at St. Patrick in Terre Haute. She graduated from St. Patrick in June 1945, and came to the Novitiate just a few weeks later, on July 22. She was received into the Congregation on January 23, 1946, and professed first and perpetual vows on the same date in 1948 and 1953.
Rita’s education continued with a Bachelor of Science degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, a master’s degree in education from Indiana State University, Nurse’s Aide training in Lourdes Infirmary, Practical Nursing from Indiana Vocational Tech, as well as Practical Nursing Certification in Indiana and Alabama.
Rita’s gardening for God began with teaching in several schools in Indiana and Illinois, and California; among these schools we find both St. Benedict and St. Margaret Mary schools in Terre Haute. We all know that teaching in school is truly a place to sow many seeds. Rita was a creative and innovative teacher, loved by her students.
In 1975, her nursing career began first here at Lourdes Infirmary, followed by her work in Selma and Uniontown, Alabama. She worked with Edmundite Missions, serving the very poor African Communities.
In both these locations, Sister Rita worked in the clinic and as an outreach nurse from the clinic for those living in poverty in these areas. Sister Rita sowed two seeds here. The first was sowing the seed of loving compassion to all those she served. She taught them love, a love which they also had for God and Sister Rita because of her dedication. The second seed Sister Rita sowed was sharing with other sisters the need for help in this ministry. As a result, other sisters joined in this great garden. There were pictures in Sister Rita’s file of some of the rundown homes of those with whom she worked. In her pictures in these areas, I could see love and trust in the faces of those with whom she worked that showed her bringing God to them in her quiet service. In 1996, Sister Rita returned to her beloved Indiana to sow other seeds as outreach nurse for The Connecting Link, serving the poor of West Terre Haute, and working with St. Ann Clinic at the same time.
During the time Sister Rita worked at St. Ann Clinic, she was able to institute the program through which the drug companies provided free medication for indigent persons through St. Ann Clinic. Another place Sister Rita sowed seeds was as a volunteer at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, learning to spin and weave alpaca fiber. She also knitted, along with her painting and other crafts. Sister Rita began her ministry of prayer in 2010.
All of Sister Rita’s work showed us her kind, gentle spirit, but not all was work. When I was asked if I could do this commentary, I decided to make a list of some of Sister Rita’s friends who could tell me more about Sister Rita as a person. I sat down with my list and started calling. Each person I spoke with gave me another name or two to add to my list. When I was in high school, there was a saying: “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you what you are.” The following are some of the words I heard more often from Sister Rita’s great friends: Gentle, loving, prayerful, and always encouraging.
Rita liked to have fun – she was a great card shark. One sister stated that if you wanted to win, you’d better not play against her. Rita had a love of travel, both in this country and in Europe. She had a wonderful trip to the Holy Land. Two sisters told me what a wonderful guide and example she was to them in their spiritual journeys. She loved the fact that she was a Terre Haute native. Two different sisters told of fishing with Rita and her dad. Some of her great patience and love of quiet must have been from these wonderful times.
Her marvelous sense of humor brought joy to us all. She was a person you could tell anything and know that she would keep it in confidence. Rita told one that she felt privileged to be a Sister of Providence and she thanked God every day for the gift of her vocation. Sister Rita was a person who gave great encouragement to others; an example is one of our current nurses. One of the nurses working here now is a nurse because when she was a teen, Sister Rita encouraged it. She was a teenager when she first worked with Sister Rita. I believe that Sister Rita showed us, by her life, that she did indeed see all as flowers in God’s Garden.
Rita, we will miss you. We will remember how well you sowed seeds that have brought such love and joy not only to us, but to all those you served so well.
Funeral services for Sister Rita took place on Sunday, April 2, and Monday, April 3, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
A Wake took place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., on Sunday, April 2, with Vespers at 4:30 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial was at 11 a.m., on Monday, April 3.
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