Passion and Compassion
Rita Schonhoff’s journey with the School Sisters of Notre Dame began informally in Cape Girardeau , MO , when, as a child, she would visit her aunt or help make deliveries to the convent kitchen with her dad. She liked the laughter she heard coming from various quarters of the old hospital building that served as home for the sisters. Notre Dame Sisters provided her elementary, secondary, and college education, sharing also their love for the poor and their happiness in community.
Rita was professed in 1958 and spent the years leading up to, during, and after Vatican II, teaching high school English and Religion, often using the Council documents just as they came from the diocesan press, to inform and inspire her students and herself. Later she was involved in other ministries: spiritual direction and retreats, social justice projects, cross-cultural programs, and community formation.
In the summer of 1976, as the U.S. observed its bicentennial, she celebrated 20 years since entering the School Sisters of Notre Dame. At this time she and another sister-friend volunteered for service in Honduras . As she says, “In January, 1977, with a month of Berlitz Spanish classes to prepare us we exchanged the snow and ice of St. Louis for the warm breezes and tropical rains and rainbows of El Progreso, Yoro , Honduras .”
In Honduras she found life and dynamism in the Central American Church in spite of oppression, poverty and violence. Faith-filled people rallied in small comunidades de base to confront their oppression and to support one another. She found that their spirit of solidarity and compassion matched the spirit in her own heart. “The rallying call of the Church and You Are Sent (SSND Rule of Life) articulated itself to me as ‘You are called to make one by being one with.”
Other extended periods of time spent in Guatemala and Nicaragua in the 80’s and in a Salvadoran refugee camp in the early 90’s provided real-life experiences of a suffering church, courageously standing against the horrors of war and the pain of exile. She felt her own complicity as a citizen of a country whose foreign policies were at the root of much of their suffering.
Her desire to root herself with the comunidades de base was a shift in consciousness and conscience, inviting her to broaden an SSND understanding of community. Eventually this call found expression, not only in Central America , but in her own geographical home area of rural southern Missouri . Rita wanted to integrate herself locally in a permanent way with her economically stressed rural community and its three small Catholic parishes. In order to do this, she needed to move from the canonical structures of religious life and let something new evolve. She made this painful and freeing decision in 1995. With the people of the area, she began “ Whole Health Outreach ”, a communitarian response to the crisis in health care and education experienced there. Over time five other Notre Dames came to serve in this growing ministry. The project has given birth to “Whole Kids Outreach” and Migrant Whole Health Outreach serving in the Missouri Bootheel area.
After several years of prayerful reflection and consultation Rita wrote a Plan of Life in Extended Faith Community and continued to live a vowed life. She has made private vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, according to the “spirit of the Constitution of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.” Her passion is living the charism of Mother Theresa, to “be one with” the community of the base in southern Missouri, and extending out from there in ever-widening circles of solidarity and justice.