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Always friendly and outgoing, Sister Rita Marie Donnelly lived with a song on her lips. Known for her impromptu serenades and dance, Sister Rita Marie brought Franciscan—and Irish—joy wherever she went. In her final hours, as Sister Death came to greet her, Sister Rita Marie joined her Sisters surrounding her in a familiar “Alleluia.” On August 16, 2015, God called Sister Rita Marie to lend her voice to the heavenly choir after serving faithfully as a Franciscan Sister of the Poor for nearly seventy-four years.

Sister Rita Marie was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on October 26, 1924, one of five children of Mary A. Kelly and Michael J. Donnelly. The Donnelly family attended Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church where the children received their elementary education at the parish school. Rita Marie continued her studies at Our Lady of Grace Commercial High School. During high school, Rita Marie volunteered in the pharmacy at nearby St. Mary Hospital where she met Sr. Priscilla Kearney, the pharmacist, who invited Rita Marie to consider a religious vocation.  
After graduating from high school, Rita Marie followed in her older sister Mary’s footsteps and made her way to Mt. Alverno Convent in Warwick, New York. On October 3, 1941, three weeks before her seventeenth birthday, Rita Marie began her journey to dedicate her life completely to God as a Franciscan Sister of the Poor. Given the name Sister Perpetua (later she returned to her baptismal name), she entered the novitiate phase of formation and professed first vows on April 26, 1944, and perpetual vows on April 26, 1949.
When she recalled experiences that had special impact on her life during her formation period, she cited the times when she worked in a soup kitchen and witnessed a well-dressed man enter. He made an almost daily appearance but never went through the food line and always found a seat near the door. One day Sister Rita Marie asked the Sister in charge why the man came but never ate. The Sister in charge responded that the man was taking care of his feet. After the older Sister shared the man’s story, Sister Rita Marie pondered it many times and upon reflection realized she was seeing the face of Jesus in this simple man. Throughout her ministry, Sister Rita Marie tried to see the face of Jesus in everyone she met.
Change, adaptation, and variety characterized Sister Rita Marie’s ministry. She served as a receptionist, director of business offices in several hospitals, and administrator of Villa of St. Francis Nursing Home in Morris, Minnesota.  She also served as an activities director in a home for senior citizens. Sister Rita’s health care ministry took her to several cities in New York and New Jersey as well as to Minnesota.
Congregational leadership recognized Sister’s depth of spirituality, leadership, and devotion to the Congregation and so chose Sister Rita Marie to serve as the Director of Novices in 1956. A rescript from the Vatican was required in order for Sister Rita Marie to serve in this role because she was younger than the age stipulated in canon law. After four years in this formation role, Sister Rita Marie returned to hospital ministry for another ten years.
Her skills as an office manager proved to be a gift to the Congregation when she served as secretary of St. Anthony Province. Those years from 1966 to 1972 saw the Congregation explore how to develop more effective ways to express “being Church.”
In 1989 Sister Rita Marie participated in a pastoral ministry program and honed her skills at St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken. After a move to Bayonne, New Jersey, she became an active volunteer in parish ministry at Star of the Sea Parish, including being a choir member. Later she moved to Allendale, New Jersey, and joined Guardian Angel Church where she continued to volunteer in a variety of parish ministries.

An outgoing, friendly personality, Sister Rita Marie revealed her deep Irish heritage through song and dance at parties and other gatherings. While living in Mt. Alverno Center, a retirement residence, she created a party atmosphere as she sang while residents waited in line at mealtimes.
Sister Rita truly valued a loving relationship with her family and was particularly close to her older sister, Mary, who spent several years as a Franciscan Sister before leaving to pursue a vocation as a wife and an employee of St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken. As youngsters, the two girls were dubbed the “Donnelly Twins.” Throughout adulthood the two sisters maintained a close relationship, so close that Sister Rita Marie requested burial in Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, New Jersey, with her sister Mary.
As Sister Rita Marie approached her ninety-first birthday, illness took a toll on her frail body, and she was admitted to St. Anthony Community Hospital. After a brief rally of health, she was transferred to Schervier Pavilion where she was nurtured until her death by the caring visits of the Sisters and the caring attention of the medical and nursing staff.

Sister Rita, as you continue to sing the praises of the God you loved throughout your life, we ask that you remember the needs of your Sisters. Help us to see the face of Jesus in each other and those we serve.

Sister Arleen Bourquin, SFP
August 25, 2015

The following are some testimonials from our Sisters who remember Sister Rita Marie with great affection:

“Sister Rita Marie loved life, music, singing, and dancing. She appreciated celebrations. She was a people person. In addition, Sister Rita Marie was very honest; if she had difficulty with a person, she entered into the experience prayerfully and with her array of emotions, and usually, when necessary, sought understanding and forgiveness.”
— Sister Mary Veronica Donohue

“I shall miss hearing that little giggle that was so characteristic of Sister Rita Marie. She had a way of enjoying the little things in life and passing that joy on with her presence.”
— Sister Betty Igo

“I have fond memories of Sister Rita Marie. When I entered the Congregation in 1958, she was the Novice Mistress. I appreciated her kind welcome and her respect for me as a ‘late’ vocation. She was a kind person with a nice sense of humor. She encouraged me to use my knowledge and my ability. I was privileged to assist her in her last year of life as she made the difficult transition to assisted living in Warwick and admission to St. Anthony Hospital and then her eventual return to the nursing facility and serious illness. Her sense of humor and her singing cheered me when I visited her. I thank God for her life among us.”
— Sister Bernadette Sullivan

“Sister Rita Marie provided me with a powerful witness to the beauty of forgiveness. Coming into a community setting where she was not her best self, she openly asked all gathered for their forgiveness. I believe it was a sacred moment for all of us who were gathered and heard her sincere heart that touched our own.”
— Sister Marilyn Trowbridge

“I met Sister Rita Marie 20 years ago when I first went to work at St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken, New Jersey. She was the epitome of Franciscan joy—always a cheerful smile and a lilting Irish voice. She had a deep love of God that was expressed not only in song but in the way she approached and listened to others. As hospital chaplain, Sister Rita visited Same Day Surgery first, then worked her way through the hospital, giving comfort and joy to patients, staff, and doctors alike. No stranger to the maternity unit, she also knew how to share in the joy of a healthy birth or be with a grieving family when a baby was stillborn. On a lighter side, Sister Rita also impressed me because she took care of her health. She ALWAYS ate her vegetables, sometimes even twice a day! She went to cardiac rehab and exercised, determined to prove the doctors wrong about her health—and she did, living to 90 years of age rather than dying in her 60s as they predicted. It has been a joy for me to share in her life!”
— Sister Jo-Ann Jackowski

“Sister Rita Marie was a devoted and dedicated Irish Catholic with a great sense of humor. She never ever said no to anyone who asked her to do something. If she did not know how, she would gather a team and have them help her. A great Franciscan Sister!”
— Sister Grace Frances Strauber

Published: October 29, 2015