The following eulogy for Sister Rita Meaney was offered by Sister Margaret O’Brien on Monday, October 23, at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Mount Saint Vincent.
Did you know that the artists who create great tapestries work completely from the back of the fabric? Only when that last thread is snipped, do they get to see the full effect of their long hours, even years, of work. They stand far enough away to appreciate the full scope, the blending of shapes and colors, faces and scenes into a single beautiful work of art.
Today, we come to appreciate the magnificent work of our artist-God in one beautiful woman and to give praise for the gift we have known. The final thread has been cut; we can view many themes and colors integrated into the narrative of Sr. Rita’s life.
Only God sees it fully; the hidden struggles and victories are known to God alone. Each of us stands in a certain position and sees in the picture in one’s own particular light.
We, her sisters in community, those of us who only knew her more recently, saw a spirited, peaceful woman who walked humbly and spoke simply as she went about doing acts of service. She kept her counsel, listened intently, told old stories with a twinkle in her eye and laughter in her voice. She volunteered, doing whatever she undertook with precision, thoroughness and a kindly professionalism.
There are also sisters of older, deeper friendships who shared the experiences in Sr. Rita’s stories many of whom have passed on before her. Together, Mary Kelly, Joanne Ward, Cecilia Schneider, Helen Murphy, Ellen Quirke, Jane Hoehn and Rita ministered in child care and social work with joy and an openness that created welcoming communities wherever and with whomever they worked, communities where everyone of whatever background knew they were loved. These Sisters see Rita in gold – as a steady, quiet but vibrant leader among them at St. Agatha’s, St. Joseph’s and eventually in her volunteering at the Foundling.
The sisters who came young and a bit scared to Nanuet and St. Joseph’s, who knew Sr. Rita as an administrator or superior, see in the tapestry the deep blue of caring and encouragement. In simple things like remarking how nice the children looked at Mass that morning and more significant things like encouragement to get higher education so they could be the best they could be for the children, they knew Rita trusted them and was helping them to learn by example the shared joy of serving well. Often, Rita became part of their families too. It seems her caring generosity made her a presence in so many extended families.
The perspective of the large group who revere her as mentor, colleague, and friend, particularly those who shared her years at St. Joseph’s in Brooklyn, lets them see in the tapestry a woman of complex and deep colors, enriched by stout courage and passion for the good of the children and families.
It was this passion for the children that made her determined to shut down the institutional care at St. Joseph’s Hall in favor of placement in foster homes in the community. She argued so well pushing the establishment, including Bishop Mugavero, who finally said, “Well, I will not tell you not to do it.”
Her engaged staff helped to find foster homes, even in neighborhoods not too welcoming. Funding was always tough but even in the worst fiscal years, staff and particularly foster parents had to be paid—and these families were provided with a week’s free vacation at Shoreham on Long Island. Sisters, too, were sent for much-needed breaks at Shoreham. This was an especially dear spot to Sr. Rita, who continued to spend weekends there with close friends long after leaving St. Joseph’s.
Renamed St. Joseph’s Children’s Services, from the 70s through the 90s, the multi-faceted agency grew and cared for 2000 children daily in community-based services such as group homes, adoptions, foster and day care. From emotionally disturbed adolescents to boarder babies in the AIDS crisis—all benefited from the courage and passion of this remarkable leader, our Sr. Rita. An inspiring leader, who taught by quiet example, Rita encouraged her staff to take initiative and always do what they believed was right for the children. She saw many of them go on to take leadership positions in their own right.
A group who is viewing this tapestry with deep affection and gratitude are the former community members who worked with Sr. Rita in those years. To them she showed the bright colors of compassionate humanity. Most in their situation were faced with finding a job to start this new phase of their lives. But Diane and Peggy and Ellen heard instead, “Please stay. Why look for a job? You are needed here.”
More than a few are viewing this tapestry with tears in their eyes but none more than her very own family. From her parents Catherine and Patrick, Rita and her siblings learned the faith that enabled her to walk trustingly through very challenging times. She grew into that gentle and genteel manner, that sense of joy, that wisdom, generosity, and humanity that drew so many to her. You, her nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, have a marvelous legacy. As you tell your stories, her light shines through you. We Sisters of Charity are so grateful to you for sharing her with us all these years (and Kay as well), and also for the loving care you gave to her.
Mary, you shared many moments with Rita and you shared with us the story that is so typical. When your mother was widowed at a young age and left with seven children, she found support and constant presence in Rita. The seven of you knew Rita’s encouragement all through your lives—as did your cousins. They told us so last evening. All the colors of laughter and tears, togetherness and loss vibrate in the tapestry as each of you gazes at it today.
Neighbors in Queens and in the halls of St. Joseph’s Nursing Home sought out this woman of wisdom and intense presence. Staff members caring for her came to tell her how they loved her. Family members were constantly present. Sisters came and went in these last days to pray with Rita and say loving farewells. Each of us was amazed at her engagement with us to the very end. She always had something personal to ask about yourself. Friendship, the art of deep presence, was one of her most striking gifts.
A friend who has walked in Sr. Rita’s footsteps as a social worker with youngsters in hard situations, who was mentored by her and now mentors others, is Belinda Conway. The level of their friendship is demonstrated by the fact that it was to Belinda that she entrusted her directions for the readings and hymns for this Mass. They prayed these readings together in the hospital and laughed together, finding humor in the oddities of living and dying in today’s health systems. To Belinda also we Sisters of Charity offer our thanks and prayers.
It is quite a tapestry, isn’t it? Remarkably, we are not just spectators; we are each woven into the whole. Our threads are inextricably bound with Rita’s and they will not be untied. We bless you, Rita, and rejoice with you today. We will hold this tapestry in our memories until we are with you again in God’s presence.
Sr. Margaret O’Brien