Maryknoll Sister Rita Owczarek, a long-time nurse, health educator and missioner in Nicaragua, died last Sunday in the Maryknoll Sisters Residential Care in New York. She was 95 years old and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 65 years, much of which was spent in Nicaragua.
Known for her feistiness, Sister Rita rose to every challenge she ever received as a missioner. At one time, she even incurred a bullet wound, which ran through her bible and into her leg. Characteristically, Sister Rita didn’t even notice that she had been wounded until, after boarding a bus, one of the locals pointed to her leg and told her it was bleeding.
After studying Spanish in Bolivia in 1953, Sister Rita worked as a dispensary nurse in Siuna, Nicaragua, from 1954-69. She then worked briefly in the same capacity in San Miguel Acatan, Guatemala, in 1969, before returning to Nicaragua in 1970, where she served again as a dispensary nurse in Managua for a year.
In 1971, Sister Rita became head nurse at a clinic in Jiloa, Nicaragua, where she worked until 1973, also assisting in pastoral work at the local Catholic parish.
Sister Rita returned to Nicaragua in 1976, where she worked as a health educator, training people of Pueblo Nuevo Estelí in health care leadership, while also assisting in pastoral work at the local parish until 1979. She was then sent to León, where she worked at the government clinic/hospital, cared for Salvadoran refugees, and assisted in pastoral work, until 1993. From 1994 to 2006, Sister Rita worked in various volunteer capacities, particularly related to peace and justice concerns.
Failing health caused her to return to the Maryknoll Sisters Center in 2006, where she reflected on her years of dedicated service to Nicaragua and her compassion and admiration for the Nicaraguan people.
“I never fail to admire and attempt to live the deep faith and hope of these wonderful people through countless catastrophes of nature, an attempt at democracy after a revolution, and political corruption,” Sister Rita wrote in a report submitted to her congregation in 2006.
“Nicaragua is in chaos with children starving, 50% not in school, rampant unemployment, and street gangs. Yet the people continue to believe in God and have great devotion to Our Lady, with little altars in almost every home. For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when you enter the home, the greeting is: “Who is the cause of great joy?”, answered by “The Conception of Mary!”
She was also impressed by what she the poor helping other poor. “For example, one woman with nine children living in a shack took a newborn into her home when the mother died of tuberculosis,” Sister Rita wrote.
“We come as missioners to spread the Word of God,” Sister Rita continued, “to insist that the people be treated with dignity, to help them to help themselves, to see themselves as subjects and not objects in life and relationships. Your continued interest and prayer in solidarity with us help us all to a fuller life in Christ.”
Sister Rita remained a resident of Maryknoll Residential Care until her death. One of ten children born, Sister Rita is survived by a sister, Mrs. Sylvia Lynch of Chicago, IL.
She will be buried in the Maryknoll Sisters cemetery at Maryknoll, NY.