Where am I?

A Jubilant Occasion

By Jamie Sokolik

This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Tableaux.

When you first meet Sister Rita Schmitz, one thing is very clear — she cares. About her students. About her community. And about Fontbonne University.

“I have always enjoyed working with young kids, high school students, and, of course, college students,” she said. “My passion is teaching.”

Sister Rita has been educating students at Fontbonne for 43 years, and in 2012, she celebrated her 50th jubilee, marking a golden anniversary with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Her years spent as a CSJ are just one testament of her commitment to her sisters and her students.

Sister Rita’s path to becoming a CSJ started early in life. “I think I was in kindergarten when I got my first clue,” she said. “My teacher was Sister Ann Judith, and I just loved her. She was so full of life, so energetic, and I watched her with the other sisters. They had fun together!”

From kindergarten on, Sister Rita loved school. She loved learning and interacting with her classmates. But after high school, she realized her path would be different from that of her peers.

“I always enjoyed dances and dates, but for me, there was something more,” she said. “I like to think of it as God finding me.”

When she approached her parents and explained her post-high school plans, they were very supportive. In fact, Sister Rita believes they helped her find her calling.

“My parents’ profound faith is part of where my decision to join the CSJs came from. I wanted to share that with others. They said, ‘If that’s what you’d like to do, we’d be thrilled.’”

Sister Rita entered the CSJ community after graduating from high school in 1961 and made her vows in 1962. Shortly after, the junior sisters were assigned to Fontbonne for college, so she started classes and lived on campus in what is now Southwest Hall. After graduating from Fontbonne with a bachelor's degree in home economics education, she went on to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale where she earned a master's degree in the same subject. She later earned a doctorate in family and child development from The Ohio State University.

Sister Rita then returned to her roots at Fontbonne and helped develop the early childhood program, later accepting the position of chair of the education/special education department. After chairing the department for 15 years, Sister Rita took a
much deserved sabbatical. Upon her return to Fontbonne, she began teaching full-time.

“Teaching has always been my passion,” she said. “It still is to this day.”

Seeing Sister Rita in the classroom with her students is proof that this is true. She looks each student in the eye and smiles in a way that shows she truly cares and understands. She explains concepts and answers questions with the utmost patience, expecting the very best from her students, challenging them with firm but loving conviction.

“My students appreciate that I challenge them,” she said. “I have given some of them papers and projects back with no grade and told them I refused to accept it because I knew they could do better. I’ve had some students contact me years later and tell me they remember that. They appreciate it.”

Sister Rita can deservedly celebrate her legacy as a beloved teacher and her relationship with her community and God. She has learned a lot, taught many, and enjoyed her time and career.

“It’s such a gift to have reached this milestone,” she said. “I did not take jubilee lightly. I’ve been praying every day because I want my focus to be on God and God’s greatness. His extravagant love keeps me humble.”