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A keen sensitivity to interreligious dialogue

Rita Kathleen Kerr was born in Orange, NJ, the daughter of Margaret (Hartnett) and James Kerr. She and her two brothers and one sister grew up in a deeply religious household. Her father, a Presbyterian later converted to Catholicism. Rita credited her father for teaching her the family prayers. She developed a keen sensitivity to interreligious dialogue from her family experience.
Rita attended St. Rose of Lima School in Newark and East Orange High School. On November 11, 1944 she entered the novitiate of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in Warwick, NY and was given her name in religion – Sr. Mary James when she received the habit in 1945. After Vatican ll she chose to return to her Baptismal name. After her studies in Nursing at St. Michael’s Medical Center, Newark, NJ, she received her RN diploma. Later she earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Seton Hall University and an MSED from Iona College, NY. She was licensed by the State of New York as a Nursing Home Administrator.

Healing poor suffering humanity

Sr. Rita developed a great love for children in her Pediatrics work at St. Clare Hospital, Schenectady, NY (1949-1953) as well as at St. Michael’s Medical Center, Newark, NJ (1953-1959). While at St. Michael’s she oversaw a 100 bed Pediatric unit and gave valuable direction to the development of a Diagnostic Center which pioneered breakthroughs in heart surgery and treatment. Sr. Rita focused her energies and mission on “healing poor suffering humanity” with special attention to children and the poor elderly. She partnered with Msgr. James Murray and Msgr. John J. Ahern at the New York Archdiocese Catholic Charities from 1971 to 1976 in establishing and directing Parish Senior Centers.
For more than twenty-one years, Sr. Rita ministered at the Frances Schervier Home and Hospital in the Bronx, serving as Administrator, Executive Director and then President. She made many important changes in improving the care provided to the nursing home residents, as well as working with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in establishing a 154 apartment complex for the well-elderly. She also developed programs for Home Care and Meals-on Wheels to help elderly Bronx residents to remain in their own homes.

Totally relied on the provident care of God

In recognition of her service to the community of Riverdale, Sr. Rita was named “Riverdalean of the Year” in 1986. She created a lasting symbol of her love for the poor elderly by commissioning a statue of Blessed Frances Schervier with a poor elderly gentleman, for the Sacred Heart Chapel at Schervier. Sr. Rita was a founding member of the Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA). She had active membership in the American Association of Homes for the Aging; the National Council on the Aging; the Gerontological Society; the National Conference of Catholic Charities; the New York State Welfare Conference; the American Public Health Association; the Academy of Pastoral Counselors. She was a member of the League of Women Voters and an active member of Community Board 8 in the Bronx, and served on several Boards of Directors.
Sr. Rita served in leadership roles in her religious congregation as Assistant Provincial (1964-1968); General Councilor (1968-1971); Regional Councilor (1992-1997). She loved opera, theater and the Arts, was a gourmet cook, an avid gardener and an animal lover. In her retirement, she enjoyed visiting women prisoners at Bedford Hills prison. In all her undertakings Sr. Rita relied totally on the provident care of God for the human and financial support needed for her work for the poor.


Published: April 1, 2014