St. Mary’s Dominican High School 8th grade students in a religion class taught by Ms. Cynthia Donnelly, OP, listened intently to guest speaker Sr. Rita Schwarzenberger, OP from her home in Kanduna, a state in north central Nigeria. This September she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award, in recognition of her dedicated work as a missionary in the African nation for nearly a half-century. The award is one of the highest papal honors that is conferred for distinguished service to the Catholic Church.
In advance of the class session via Zoom, the students had submitted a dozen questions for Sr. Rita. They ranged from why she decided to join the Dominican Order of Preachers to questions about her work and the community where she lives.
“Nigeria is slightly larger than Texas and has 220 million people,” she told the class. “The United States has 330 million people. What happens is you have so many people in a small place and resources are few. Many have no jobs. They may have an education, but they cannot use their education. Resources are scarce. In many areas of Africa, the animals and land are becoming scarce, and people are coming to Nigeria because the ongoing situations of conflict and lack of rainfall has caused many people to migrate, hoping for a better life.”
The third of eight children born in Collyer, Kansas, Sr. Rita’s family includes many religious. Her aunt, Sister Michael, was in Great Bend. There was a great uncle, Father Francis Uhrich. Sr. Rita followed her older sister, Francine, into the convent. From childhood she and her siblings were part of her family’s engagement with community service. “I come from a small town in Kansas and grew up in a Catholic family,” she said. “We would help the sisters and priests in our community whenever needed for a community task. I was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph.”
In 1960, Sr. Rita joined the Dominican Order. She worked in pastoral ministries in the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City, Salina, and Wichita, and taught school in Pueblo, Colorado. After years of teaching, Sr. Rita in 1975 travelled to Nigeria to join other Dominican Sisters from Great Bend who were ministering there. Initially she was involved in teaching, and in 1987 she began working in the Church’s Provincial Office for Justice Development and Peace. In 2003 she became Director of Hope of the Village Child Foundation. She also is Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Kaduna Pastoral Plan.
The Village Child Foundation is a non-governmental organization that works with marginalized rural poor. It uses several different approaches that reflect the foundation’s values and ethical principles. The first approach: development of the person; second: infrastructural development, both material and social. The Foundation’s programs are Health, Education, Environment, Peacebuilding and Women’s Development. Among her many duties, Sr. Rita and her team run a health center with a focus on mothers and children. Tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid, and HIV/AIDS are among the conditions they treat. They also provide treatments for children who are malnourished and have rickets. This disease of children is characterized by imperfect calcification, softening, and distortion of the bones typically resulting in deformed legs and other bones. Sr. Rita shared photos of children before they received treatment, and how their lives changed because they can now stand and walk.
Access to safe water is another critical resource for the local communities. The first water well was built more than 20 years ago, made possible by a WaKeeney, Kansas widow who gave a donation in memory of her husband. There are now 400 wells. “All of the community help with building the wells. It is a joyous event when a well is built and commissioned. When the people see the water, it is a time of great rejoicing,” said Sr. Rita.
Because of unrest in the area and threat of attacks by armed bandits, Sr. Rita works from her home. Her day starts at 4:30 a.m. with daily Mass at 6:15, followed by breakfast with her fellow sister, then work at her home-based office. She said the Catholic Church has a strong presence in Kaduna whose population is one million. There are 90 Catholic churches with many mission churches in the Archdiocese of Kaduna. On Sundays the churches are full, shared Sr. Rita. “People at Mass dance and sing. We worship, dance, and sing with our hearts.”
Ms. Donnelly said connecting with Sr. Rita was important for the students, “because after we study Dominican Identity, they think of preaching mostly by St. Dominic, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas, even though they do study St. Catherine of Siena, St. Rose of Lima, and St. Martin de Porres. I think it rounds out their understanding of the Order’s mission to hear how one of the sisters preaches through her actions of mercy and peacemaking in a place where it is against the law to actually preach the Gospel to believers of the other major religion in the area, i.e., Islam. They have expressed the hope that she will come visit when she is stateside.”