Sister Rita Johnson, SSND
May 10, 1942 – July 21, 2022
Sister Rita Johnson’s Liturgy of Christian Burial was presided over at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Norwich, Connecticut, by her good friend Cathedral Rector, Msgr. Anthony Rosaforte, on July 27. Bishop Michael K. Cote, who was present, prayed the Commendation Ritual. Her sisters and their families from Boston, SSNDs from Baltimore and Bridgeport, more than a dozen concelebrating priests, hundreds of colleagues and friends joined in celebrating Rita’s life of great faith and joyous spirit. She had ministered for 41 years as Chaplain at the William W. Backus Hospital, Norwich, become a “legend,” and been called the Backus “angel” by hundreds of patients and their families.
Born in Boston to Rita Kathleen Craven of Boston and John Johnson of Hall County, Kentucky, on May 10,1942, Rita Kathleen was their second daughter, named for her mother. She already had an 11-month old sister, Barbara. Later another daughter, Maureen, was born, and then a boy, Jack, completed the family. From her childhood and into her convent life, Rita was called Sissy.
Sissy was educated by SSNDs at Mission Grammar and High Schools, Roxbury. She later wrote that she felt her vocation “had taken root under the guidance of the sisters while I was still in grammar school.”
In 1961, after high school graduation and working as a secretary for a year, Rita was received at the parish church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, and began her Candidature at the new Motherhouse in Wilton, Connecticut. A year later, at Reception she received the name Marie Johneen for her father.
Rita’s 11-year teaching ministry followed, in grade one and later grade six, in Glen Cove, Long Island, NY; Jaffrey, NH; and Danbury, CT. Cathy Feeney remembers their Jaffrey days. “She arrived in August 1965 the morning after the house burned down because lightning had struck the roof. We told her that her temporary home was the local funeral home. Rita’s sense of humor and contagious laugh got us through that year while our convent home was being refurbished. Another memory is that she loved the exhilaration of climbing nearby Mt. Monadnock.”
Rita graduated with a B.A. in Education from the College of Notre Dame of Wilton in 1970, and was awarded an M.A. in Pastoral Studies from St Paul University, Ottawa, Canada in 1976. That year, she began her ministry in the Norwich Diocese fostering Social Concerns, and in 1981 at the Cathedral Parish, St. Patrick, ministering to the elderly. Her legendary 41-year chaplaincy at Backus Hospital began at that time.
Reflecting on this ministry in the Norwich Bulletin in 1985, Rita wrote:
“Sometimes there are no adequate verbal answers to the hard life and death questions patients and families ask. The most a chaplain can do is express the healing presence of a compassionate God who hears our cry and is present in a warm embrace, silence, and tears. I enter the room of a patient as a guest, believing that I am standing on sacred ground and that the Lord is with me as well as with the patient.”
And in 1994:
“Being a chaplain is not what I do for someone, but a way of being with someone. My ministry is bolstered by my ‘survival kit’ that contains three bones—a wishbone to dream the impossible dream, to hope; a backbone for courage and inner strength; and a funny bone for a sense of humor.”
Judy Fredrick in the New London Day, wrote about Rita in 2002:
“Joy fills Sister Rita’s heart when she can congratulate a family on the birth of a child. Those are the moments she treasures that come all too infrequently when compared with the sad times. For those of us who are blessed to know her, the thanks we feel in our hearts can never exceed the kindness in her heart.”
Rita’s decades of service were honored in 2013 when she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal from Pope Francis. This is the highest honor bestowed on laity in the Church.
At the funeral liturgy, Rita’s niece Bobbie Flynn proclaimed the first reading from 2 Timothy; Sister Kate Whalen, a member of her profession class, read from 2 Corinthians.
Msgr. Rosaforte began his homily with, “Please be seated for the next four hours,” to keep a promise that he had made to Rita that her funeral not be “sad.” He told three short humorous stories that drew laughter also, and then paid this tribute to his good friend:
“Sister was a giant in her vocation of Love to the sick. She comforted them in their sorrow and let everyone know God was not punishing them or abandoning them. . . . The hospital is a wonderful institution of healing. She added a special gift to it, a spiritual touch of love, care and comfort. She was dedicated not only to the patients, but to the staff as well.”
After Communion, Sister Cathy Feeney shared the paragraph from the SSND Constitution which proclaims, “death as an act of worship;” and affirms that “in hope and peace we enter into the joy of the Lord.” Provincial Councilor Sister Paula Dukehart asked all to pray together the blessing of SSND Foundress Blessed Theresa of Jesus that the Sisters said daily on dismissing their classes, and that Rita would have heard as a child and prayed as a teacher:
“I commend you to the Holy Spirit through the powerful
intercession of the most blessed Virgin Mary and I entrust
you forever into her blessed hands.
Rita’s devoted sisters, Barbara Finn and Maureen Sullivan, with their children, grandchildren and cousins were joined by many, many of Rita’s friends and colleagues at her wake and funeral. Pallbearers, at their request, were maintenance and custodial staff at the Cathedral who considered her “one of their gang.” Burial followed in a new section at St. Joseph’s Cemetery to be called in her honor the “SRJ Section.”
- By Sister Kay O’Connell, SSND