Faithful servant of several Fall River bishops celebrates 60 years of religious life

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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FALL RIVER, Mass. — During this Year of Consecrated Life declared by Pope Francis, many of those who have found their calling through living a religious life do so without much fanfare. This includes one humble Sister living at the Landmark Senior Living Communities in Fall River; but when it came to celebrating her 60 years as a Sister of St. Joan of Arc with a renewal of her vows, instead of a simple vow renewal during a Mass held in the chapel at the Landmark, Sister Rita Teasdale found herself surrounded by residents and friends from her native city of Fall River.

“I just celebrated in Quebec,” said Sister Rita of her vow renewal held at the St. Joan of Arc motherhouse in Canada, “and being the only one here I thank Sister Bernadette and Father Correia; this was a complete surprise. It’s a great joy for me and it’s like my family here being a Fall River native.”

Sister Bernadette Sullivan, a Holy Union Sister and coordinator at the Landmark, said it was a delight to see Sister Rita celebrate her vow renewal: “She’s a very loving and quiet person; everybody likes her. She moved [to the Landmark] in August, and she’s part of our community. She comes and prays with us daily. It’s just a joyous celebration and in the Year of the Consecrated Life.”

Father Edward Correia celebrated the Mass, and noted the specialness of having Sister Rita renew her vows in French, which was a “wonderful tribute to our Canadian brothers and sisters who came from Canada to be part of our community in the United States, who along with all the other immigrant groups came from all the other parts of the world. This is a wonderful chance to be able to honor that tradition and heritage. 

“This is a wonderful time for all of us. This is the year that Pope Francis has asked that the Church celebrate the consecrated life. This whole year has been a year concentrating on those who have dedicated their lives to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.”

Father Correia added that those who live a religious life have so much to say and offer to the community, and “it’s on this day, Sister Rita, that we thank you for your witness of 60 years of being able to show to all of us in union with all the other Sisters and all those who live a religious life, the wonderful gift of living your life in such a way that we all understand a little bit more what it means to be a person dedicated to the Lord in our own way, as you have dedicated your life to the Lord.”

The Sisters of St. Joan of Arc live according to the example set by Mary, who remained close to Jesus; the Sisters of St. Joan of Arc want to be close collaborators of priests. They do this by praying for the ministry of priests, and they also help priests in day-to-day activities by offering domestic services in rectories, thereby freeing priests for ministry and prayer. The Sisters work to better serve Christ, the Church and the priesthood, and make efforts to live in harmony and in peace, according to the Rule of St. Augustine of “having but one heart and one soul in God.” 

Stationed with Bishop George W. Coleman and then-Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., Sister Rita said her religious life started back with Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, with whom she stayed with for 12 years. Sixty years later, Sister Rita has no regrets.

“I must say,” said Sister Rita, “I have loved every bit of it. I have never regretted my life as a religious. I have been with all of these bishops and they’ve been wonderful. It’s not just that the women of St. Joan of Arc do house cleaning, there is much more to it than that. We are there to support priests and bishops in their ministry, to liberate them so that they can be more available to the people.”

And while she may have helped make the priests more available to the people, it was clear that many of the people who have crossed Sister Rita’s path appreciate her role as a Sister and friend.

“Sister Rita truly loves the Church,” said Father David Pignato, “and she has faithfully served the bishops and the Diocese of Fall River for so many years. When I lived in the bishop’s residence, during the years of my assignment as the bishop’s secretary, I was inspired by Sister’s example of dedication and her impressive work-ethic; she worked each day, from before sun-up until long past sun-down, with the greatest attention to every detail of her work. And she never neglected her prayer life, either. In fact, she was always so supportive of my pastoral endeavors by offering to remember my work in her prayers. She is a great inspiration for me, and her example inspires me as a priest to work hard and long for Christ and the Church, while never forgetting the importance of Spiritual discipline. God bless Sister Rita!”

“I had the pleasure to know Sister Rita and work with her while I was secretary for Bishop (now Cardinal ) Sean O’Malley from 1994 until 2000,” said Msgr. Stephen Avila, pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish in East Falmouth. “As secretary, I lived in the bishop’s residence with Bishop Sean and it was there that I got to know her and the other Sisters who were responsible for the domestic duties of the residence. From last-minute guests for lunch, to the perfectly-packed suitcase when the bishop was going to celebrate Mass for one of the parishes in the diocese, Sister Rita would meticulously make sure everything was in place. To this day, I can’t figure out how she could pack a suitcase so perfectly. While she resembled, in many ways the person of  ‘Martha’ in the Gospel in her care for the details of hospitality, I see Sister Rita more like ‘Mary’ who sat at the feet of Jesus, contemplating His presence. I would often go upstairs to the bishop’s chapel and there would be Sister Rita, sometimes alone, sometimes with the other Sisters, kneeling in prayer. I know many of those times that Sister Rita was there, she was praying for our bishop, or for my brother priests or me. I know those prayers are still said for all of us, and for that, I am very grateful.”

“She’s a wonderful person and lives the witness of her faith by her kindness, availability, and just the love and joy she brings to her ministry,” said Sister Barbara Kirkman, a Holy Union Sister who had known Sister Rita for 10 years. “When she was there with Bishop Coleman, she was so gracious and loved every bit of what she was doing. When she’d come to Holy Name Church for Mass, she was always so gracious to the parishioners. She shows a love and dedication, appealing to others, and in her sense of religious life and what it’s really about — her openness to God, the changing times and the needs of the Church and the world.”

Seeing Sister Rita having the renewal during the Year of Consecrated Life is a reminder “that we are honored and privileged to be living a religious life,” said Sister Barbara, “and knowing that it’s a calling among the vocations of the Church. We’re all called to a vocation as baptized men and women, and for Sister Rita it was a religious life. She loves it and she just radiates that.”

“As a Sister of St. Joan of Arc, she lived out her commitment to the Lord in many capacities,” said Msgr. John Oliveira, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford. “It was my privilege to know this religious community as they served at the cathedral rectory and at the bishop’s residence. For more than 23 years of my priesthood they were present not only to carry out domestic chores, but to intercede in prayer for the priests they served and the clergy of the diocese. They were examples of the Lord’s love and caring. In many ways they made the rectory a home. 

“Sister Rita continues in our diocese as a reminder of the Sisters of St. Joan of Arc and as an example of faithful, prayerful ministry. May the Lord continue to grant much good health and happiness in the years ahead, which I pray are many.”

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