After 43 years serving in Nigeria,
Sister Rita Schwarzenberger says,
‘The greatest joy for me is to see lives changed’
Editor’s Note: The Southwest Kansas Catholic posed several questions to Sister Rita Schwarzenberger, a Dominican Sister of Peace, via email. The Kansas native serves in Nigeria.
Southwest Kansas Catholic: Where were you born?
Sister Rita Schwarzenberger: I was born in Collyer, Kansas (directly north of Dodge City, just north of I-70), the third of eight children.
SKC: How long have you been a Sister?
Sister Rita: I entered the convent in 1960, made temporary profession in 1963.
SKC: Can you tell me what it was that compelled you to become a Sister?
Sister Rita: I think your word ‘compelled’ is a good description. Not only did I go to Catholic grade school and was often helping the Sisters or Priests with one task or another, I was also very much exposed to the life of a Sister because our family often went to see our aunt, Sister Michael, in Great Bend, and on the way we stopped in Liebenthal to visit our great uncle, Father Francis Uhrich.
So when you use the word “compelled”, I sometimes tell people I did not choose to become a Sister; I was prayed into it. And as you might be aware, I have a sibling whom I followed into the convent, my older sister who worked for some time in the RENEW program in Dodge City Diocese, Sister Francine.
SKC: How long have you been serving in Nigeria?
Sister Rita: I came to Nigeria in 1975 to join the Dominican Sisters from Great Bend who were ministering here.
It was a big change for me to come from a small town in Kansas across the ocean, but it had been a dream of mine to be a missionary.
Initially I was involved in teaching, but later was asked to work for the northern Nigerian Dioceses in works of Justice and Peace. As that was handed over to Nigerians, I took up the work of directing the Hope for the Village Child Foundation. The Foundation was started by a friend of mine who left the country in the year 2000. I was free at that time to accept, and have been working there ever since.
SKC: Are there other Sisters from Kansas working with you? Any Nigerian Sisters?
Sister Rita: Initially I was part of a group of Sisters from Great Bend, but due to a number of circumstances, health issues, aging and sadly, of the death of some whom I met here, I am now the only Sister of the original ones from Great Bend still here.
However, the Sisters left a marvelous legacy in the foundation of a group of Nigerian Dominican Sisters who are doing wonderful work and who will soon take on the work that I am doing.
SKC: How is the faith of the people served? Are they mostly Christian? Muslim? Or a mix?
Sister Rita: Hope for the Village Child Foundation is an NGO, not a faith-based program, as that is defined. The meaning is that we do not proselytize. We work among and with both Christians and Muslims and we have representatives of both faiths on our staff.
Saying we are not faith-based does not mean we ignore religion. It is very important in the life of the people, but as an organization, we try to witness to others that as people of different denominations, different faiths and different ethnic groups, we can work together in harmony. It is a challenge, but I am proud to say that I feel we do that quite successfully. Key to it all, of course, is respect.
SKC: Can you share a bit of what you do with the Foundation?
Sister Rita: Our work is mainly in rural interior communities, though we do have a central clinic.
Health care is a very big issue. In our clinic as well as in outreach programs, we deal with immunization against childhood diseases, child and maternal health, diseases such as malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, sickle cell disease, HIV, meningitis and other common diseases such as diarrhea and vomiting.
Of course, each of these has many different components to treatment, but we are fortunate to have a well-supplied laboratory that assists with diagnosis.
An important part of our health program is our potable water program, i.e., the digging of wells in rural communities. These wells are donated by individuals, families or groups mainly in the United States; the Diocese of Dodge City has not been left out, as there are names of members of the Dodge City Diocese on wells throughout our rural area. In all, I am proud to say that the people of the United States have sponsored well over 200 wells in various communities.
As our name suggests, our main focus is on the child, but we have found out that one cannot focus on the child without bringing in the other members of the family.
With that in mind, we place stress on education, assisting the rural communities in strengthening their schools. We engage in agricultural programs with farmers, both men and women. We also have special programs for women as the primary care-givers for the children.
Some years back I learned about the incidence of rickets, often a crippling disease among children in the rural areas.
Thanks to the generosity of the Catholic Church in Germany, we were able to get assistance for these children, distributing calcium and for those whose deformity was too severe, surgery.
To date we have had more than 400 surgeries carried out. This is linked to another program for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, post-polio paralysis, etc.
SKC: What are some of the great joys you have encountered?
Sister Rita: The greatest joy for me is to see lives changed. Immediately what comes to mind is the story of a young woman named Lami Tanko. When we met her, she was severely affected with rickets, with what we called bow-legs.
The pain was so severe she could not walk the several miles she needed to go to attend school. She was among the first set of children to have surgery, and that was her first exposure to the English language.
But Lami had a spark inside her, and she pleaded with her parents to go to live in the town where she could attend a better school. Her dream was to become a health worker so she could help others as she had been helped.
Within 10 years she completed, in English, the 12 years of primary and secondary school, graduating with high marks. She is now enrolled in a school of health technology. There are many stories that touch the heart, and I am privileged to be here in the heart of it all.
But I am also privileged to be involved in the Archdiocese of Kaduna where I am a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Executive Council. Over the last few years we have been able to produce the revised five-year Pastoral Plan, syllabi in English and Hausa (common local language) for the teaching of religion, special syllabus in Hausa and English for the RCIA program, and other policy documents.
We are involved in other events such as hosting the Archdiocesan General Assembly. And for me, in the small village where I live, there is no resident priest, so daily I am blessed to be able to have a Communion Service with the people here.
SKC: What are some of the challenges?
Sister Rita: Yes, there are challenges. In Nigeria, just one-third again as large as Texas, we are now reported to have 180 million people.
Resources, as in many countries, are not evenly distributed to the people, and thus there is wide-spread poverty and un- or under-employment. This contributes to insecurity and a need that constantly comes knocking for assistance.
But thanks be to God, each day brings its own blessings because in general, I find the people of Nigeria to be highly intelligent, gracious and accepting and open to the workings of God in their lives. It is a blessing for me.
SKC: What could we in southwest Kansas learn from your experiences in Nigeria?
Sister Rita: I believe the same is true of southwest Kansas because I also served in the diocese, albeit for only one year. I know the people there to be generous, gracious, and aware of God’s gifts in their lives. I know that we are united in faith, and I pray that we continue to grow in grace and peace. In spite of difficulties, pain and need, one of the common expressions here is “We Thank God” and for me, it is one of the profound learnings that has affected my life and I hope yours also.