Sister Rita Lewandowski, GNSH, (Sister Thomas More)

Written on: December 29, 2021

Reflection for Sister Rita Lewandowski

Given by Sister Denise Roche

We gather today to say “farewell” to our sister and friend, Rita Lewandowski.  Although she died a short few days ago, we miss her quiet, gentle presence already.  Rita was a woman who had a zest for life always wanting to blend in and to be inconspicuous.  She loved listening and laughing and learning with others.  Her temperament led her to want to fit into a group, but her extraordinary talents and gifts soon caught the attention of those around her.

Rita was a Buffalonian who was the daughter of Walter and Florence Lewandowski.  Rita loved to learn and attended public schools for most of her education.  It was in high school at South Park that she met many dedicated teachers, who had graduated from D’Youville College.  With the help of teachers who recognized her as a capable and enthusiastic student, Rita was able to attend D’Youville with the aid of college scholarships.  It was there that Rita’s intellectual desire flourished and where she became attracted to the spirit of the Grey Nuns who taught her.  Excelling in her studies led Rita to want to continue learning as much as she could, especially in languages and in her beloved field of philosophy.  After receiving her degree in Latin, minoring in Greek, she moved to the Washington area, studied for a master’s degree in philosophy and began her teaching years at Marymount College in Virginia.  Rita also studied at the University of Toronto to continue her scholarly interests.

When Rita reached the age of 29 she realized that, if she was going to enter the Grey Nuns, a calling she had been ignoring for several years, she would have to do it before her next birthday.  At that time, a person needed special permission to enter a religious order after turning 30.  To what would become our delight, Rita entered in September 1961, becoming the eldest member of our band of postulants.  Although Rita tried her best to become one among us, she soon became noticed for her great intellectual capacity, her educational background and her remarkable artistic ability.  She was also known for the activities she did not like, such as sewing, cleaning and cooking.  Rita was beloved by us all – we laughed with her often and shared her perplexity at a number of tasks we were asked to do.  Rita was known as a tenderhearted, kind, affable and very learned person who had a delightful sense of humor and enjoyed being one of the crowd.

Rita was never known for her practicality, but was always loved for her generous spirit.  In spite of her intellectual gifts or perhaps, because of them, Rita was able to be at home and at ease in the presence of everyone and anyone.  She had a gift for making others feel comfortable in her presence.

Throughout most of her years of ministry, Rita taught at the postsecondary level, introducing postulants and novices to the pleasures and treasures of philosophy at Sacred Heart Jr. College at the Motherhouse in Yardley and at D’Youville College in Buffalo.  Always, uppermost for Rita was her love of language and philosophy and her search for spiritual growth through theology.

Then, Rita’s life changed.  After studying at Temple University, Rita became a reading specialist.  Following Marguerite d’Youville’s example of love and service, especially for the poor and those in need, Rita sought and secured a position in the Buffalo Public Schools teaching those who had difficulty learning to read.  Although it was a formidable task, Rita wanted to try it, knowing how much reading and learning had meant to her in her life.  Among her students were people with physical and emotional difficulties and many who were speakers of other languages.  After doing this work with great success for a number of years, Rita retired from her full-time position teaching children to read.

But that was not the end for Rita’s teaching.  As a volunteer, Rita taught immigrants and refugees on the West Side of Buffalo, where there was a constant influx of new people seeking citizenship in the United States or safe passage to Canada.  Rita, again, used her love for learning and capacity for language to instruct her students so that they could learn English well enough to communicate within their new surroundings.  Rita loved them, and they knew it.  She was for many the living saint, the Marguerite d’Youville of their lives. When Rita was called upon finally to move to Philadelphia for complete retirement her “students” were devastated and showed their affection by giving her handmade clothing from their culture, food and loving tokens of their gratitude.

And so she lived, a woman who was so full of gifts and who was at home most among the little ones, a person whose brilliant mind and talents ranked high above others, but who was only at home among the ordinary.  Her love of God was the motivating center of her life and radiated to the lives of so many others with its tenderness and compassion.  When we think of Rita, we remember her smile, her look of concern as she listened intensely and her enveloping love of her family and friends.  Rita was always a sign that God is among us.

In preparation for our 60th Jubilee year, last year, we were asked to reflect on what our life as a Grey Nun has meant to us.  Sr. Mary Salvador is going to read us Rita’s own words about her experience as a Grey Nun.  These are Sr. Rita’s words as she described her life:

My Life as a Grey Nun by Sr. Rita Lewandowski

I thought that getting old would take a lot longer. Happily, the scenario that flashes by as I think of my Grey Nun life is one of joy.

My philosophical studies made me love to think about God, His existence, His nature, etc. Religious life gave me access to God in this manner. However, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart soon taught me that “God refuses to be known by the intellect. God only allows Himself to be loved by the heart!”  The true meaning of spirituality, they taught, consists of self-giving, of living and caring for others.

This brings me to ministry.

My teaching ministry has been the high point and passion of my existence. I loved my early years of teaching philosophy and literature, but those years can’t hold a candle to my later years when my teaching acquired an entirely new and surprising dimension.

Gregory Boyle has said, “Every once in a while we have this great, privileged moment where we get to stand with those whose dignity has been denied.”  For some inspired reason, I became interested in the problem of dyslexia and learning disability. The Congregation graciously allowed me to study for a year at Temple University where I became a reading specialist.  My training at Temple emphasized that if a student didn’t learn, it wasn’t the student who was at fault. It was probably the teacher. There had to be a way, and it was up to the teacher to find it. This training also, emphasized creativity, which involved transforming lessons into game-like, fun activities. Learning for the reading impaired is hard enough, so make it fun!

Although I wanted to teach adults, l somehow got channeled into teaching children- probably because the need for remedial reading classes at the elementary level was so urgent.  The children at first seemed to me like aliens from another planet, surreal creatures with whom I couldn’t resonate. But, seeking to put my Temple teaching methods into practice, I stayed up half the night most nights converting lessons into games, plays, and other engaging exercises. Although it was hard work, I honestly didn’t even notice that. The result was that I managed a breakthrough into the world of children and became a real kid-person. Again, I was surprised by joy. I came to love the little ones, who, in their turn, responded to me and my teaching. We had a ball! I will always treasure this time with the children.

I owe this whole dimension of my life to the Grey Nuns, to whom I’m profoundly grateful for EVERYTHING! I’m grateful for my life of prayer, for my close Grey Nun friends, for the exquisite care I’ve received since I got cancer, for my life in the veritable lap of luxury here at Holy Redeemer Lafayette, and for all who give me prompt assistance with all my daily needs and problems.

Finally, I’m grateful to God for getting his hooks into me, reeling me in, and keeping me close to Him for all these years.

Sister Rita Lewandowski, GNSH, (formerly Sister Thomas More), 89, died on Sunday, December 26, 2021. Rita was born in Buffalo, NY on October 26, 1932, daughter of the late Walter and Florence A (Gajewski) Lewandowski. Sister graduated from South Park High (1950) and earned a BA, Magna cum laude in Latin from D’Youville College (1954) and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (1956). Postgraduate work was done at Villanova and Temple Universities. Sister held Permanent NY and PA Licensing as a Reading Specialist, as well as a Permanent NY license in Latin. Sister held membership in the Kappa Gamma Pi honor society.

A lifelong educator, Sister Rita influenced the lives of countless young people and adults as she introduced them to the world of reading and literacy. Before entering the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart in 1961 she was an Instructor at Marymount Junior College, Arlington, VA, where she taught Philosophy, English and World Literature. Her ministry assignments took her to Pennsylvania, Georgia and New York. Sister taught at Sacred Heart Junior College (1961-66, 1969-70), Yardley; Bishop Egan (1974-75) and St. Anthony of Padua (1975-79), Philadelphia, PA and at D’Youville Academy (1966-67) in Atlanta, GA.

The remainder of her ministry was in the Buffalo area, including a year at Immaculate Conception (1979-80), Eden. Students at Holy Angels Academy (1967-69), D’Youville College (1970-72), and Holy Angels School (1980-81) benefitted from her experience. For 10 years Sister served as a reading specialist at several parish schools: St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1981-83), All Saints (1983-85), St. Joseph’s Academy (1985-87), St. Augustine Center (1987-88), and St. Bonaventure (1988-91).

Turning to Adult Literacy in 1991, she engaged and challenged those attending the Adult Learning Center to experience the joys of reading. She continued this ministry until 2007; upon retirement she became a volunteer teacher with the Literacy Volunteers of Western New York until moving to Philadelphia in December 2015.

Predeceased by her brother Richard, Sister Rita is survived by her nephew in addition to her religious congregation.

Sharing of memories at 9:45 am, funeral Mass to follow at 10:00 am on Saturday, January 8, 2022, Redeemer Sisters’ Chapel, 521 Moredon Rd., Huntingdon Valley, PA. Burial in Resurrection Cemetery, Bensalem, PA.

Donations in her memory will be gratefully received by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. Donations may be made online to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, or by mail at the following address:14500 Bustleton Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19116-1188.

Funeral arrangements by Beck/Givnish, Inc.


One thought on “Sister Rita Lewandowski, GNSH, (Sister Thomas More)

  1. Mary Pfeiffer says:

    Although my encounters with Sr. Rita were far and few between I am most grateful for each and everyone of those moments. Her humility, intelligence and smile left an imprint in my heart and mind. What a blessing for her to go home to God on the second day of the Christmas season. May God bless all who are missing her presence on earth and find comfort in the knowledge that Sr. Rita remains with them in spirit until they meet again.

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