Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Teaching Nun, Sister Rita Led Many To God

By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published July 15, 2004

As a teacher and an administrator at St. Pius X High School, Sister Rita Marie Raffaele had a reputation for being strict.

But for those who knew her, her toughness was balanced, if not overpowered, by her fairness, good humor and, most especially, her great faith in God.

Though small in stature, the late Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart left a big impact when she died May 26 at the age of 78. And the many people whose lives she touched gathered June 29 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta to honor her.

Msgr. Richard Lopez, chaplain at St. Pius and a longtime friend of Sister Raffaele, celebrated the Mass, joined by nine concelebrating priests.

The church was full of hundreds of former students, colleagues and friends of Sister Raffaele, and they greeted each other with a warm familiarity in the church narthex.

Debra Ferrell, who graduated from St. Pius in 1968, was in two of Sister Raffaele’s classes.

“She was very demanding as a teacher. You really had to keep up. But she was also very fair and down to earth,” she said. “There were a lot of boys who used to tease her because she was so little, but she’d dish it right back.”

Ferrell’s children were among the first to attend St. John Neumann School in Lilburn, the regional school that Sister Raffaele helped to open as an administrator.

“I was walking around the corner with my children and I heard her voice. I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “And she remembered me. She remembered my class and the boys that used to tease her. She had an amazing attention to detail. She was my favorite teacher, and then my children were able to learn from her too.”

Msgr. Lopez celebrated many times with Sister Raffaele. In his homily, he confessed that celebrating the memorial Mass for his friend was a “most difficult moment” for him, and recalled celebrating Mass at the Grey Nuns motherhouse in Yardley, Pa., 25 years ago. Twelve years ago, he celebrated the Mass for Sister Raffaele’s golden jubilee—50 years as a Religious, and two years ago he had celebrated for her 60th anniversary. Each time, the petite sister had sat in the front pew.

“Tonight, she’s not sitting in the first pew, and now I pray with all my heart that she is standing behind me and behind all of those she loved so dearly,” he said.

Msgr. Lopez’s homily was peppered with humorous and moving anecdotes about Sister Raffaele, his words making obvious the influence she had on his priestly and personal life.

“When we got the word at St. Pius that she had died … we had a hard time believing it. Even though she was 78, even though we knew she had been sick,” he said. “Because for all of us who knew her, we somehow thought she would be eternal. Not just eternal in the spiritual and theological sense but eternal in the fact that we needed her so badly.”

He spoke of Sister Raffaele’s great gift of reassurance and the many “Rita-isms” that spring into his mind.

“Whenever I was frazzled or upset, she would always tell me, ‘do what you are doing,’” he said. “And one of her favorite things to say was ‘go easy.’ But those of us who knew her very well knew she suffered much of the same worries that we did. And by divine grace, as she struggled internally, she was able to heal us externally.”

Sister Raffaele assured people, he said, that there was a God who loved them and that it was good to be Catholic.

“Extreme liberalists look at the church and say ‘I wish you were different.’ Extreme conservatives say ‘you ain’t what you used to be,’” he said. “But real saints like Sister Rita look at the church and say ‘I love you. I love you as you are.’”

She also reassured people of her own goodness, and especially of the great value of teaching, which she held so dear, Msgr. Lopez said.

“She embraced the life of teaching. She loved it,” he said. “Do you have any idea how many thousands of men and women come to the altar here and around the world with reverence for the Eucharist because of her own reverence? Do you have any idea how many people when they greet the Lord in heaven will say ‘We are here with you because she taught us about you?’”

Thirty-four of Sister Raffaele’s 62 years of Religious life were spent in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, including nearly 20 at St. Pius. In addition to St. John Neumann School, she also served at The Donnellan School.

Her journey as a Religious sister was rarely spent alone. She was almost always seen with her closest friend and fellow Grey Nun, Sister Dawn Gear, who attended the Atlanta memorial Mass. Sister Gear was the founding principal of St. John Neumann School and The Donnellan School, and is now serving as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Camden, N.J.

Mark Kelly, athletic director and alumnus of St. Pius, was both a former student and colleague of Sister Raffaele, and spoke of her special friendship with Sister Gear.

“You hardly ever talked about Sister Rita without Sister Dawn. God had a wonderful plan for all of us, and I’m convinced that Rita was put on the earth for you, Dawn, and vice versa,’” he said, addressing Sister Gear.

Calling Sister Raffaele, “some kind of lady,” Kelly spoke about his theory that in life, each person meets four or five people that he is convinced are going to heaven.

“I would say that Sister Rita is on all of our lists. Was it because she was a powerful leader? Was it because she built tall buildings? No. Sister Rita Marie is in heaven because of her special closeness to God,” he said. “I’ve never known anyone in my life who was a truer witness to the commandment of putting God first and everyone else will fall into place.”

Kelly said that though Sister Raffaele was known as a tough teacher, the students “sensed her gentle goodness.”

“As a colleague, everyone knew you could talk to Sister Rita, and she would always lead you to talk to God. She taught my children at St. John Neumann and was known in the same way,” he said. “Her life was about bringing children to God. That’s what she did. The greatest teaching tool we have is our own life, and Sister Rita, with her innocent grace and prayerful closeness to God,was an example to all of us.”

Sister Gear also spoke to the congregation, trying to hold back her tears.

“I prayed every day since she died that I wouldn’t cry,” she said.

But as Sister Raffaele’s friend for over 30 years, Sister Gear struggled to contain her emotion. Her voice sometimes broke with tears, and at other moments, she would laugh at a memory of her fellow sister.

Sister Raffaele taught school in Pennsylvania until this past Easter, Sister Gear said.

“She loved teaching. And the kids would just follow her. They loved her, too,” she said. “The day she died, the second-graders said, ‘she’s on her way to heaven.’”

She became sick with heart and blood-related problems. After weeks of testing the doctors told Sister Raffaele that there was nothing they could do for her.

“It was unbelievable. She was ministering to the doctors. She was telling them, ‘don’t worry, it’s OK,’” Sister Gear recalled with a chuckle through her tears. “She said ‘this is God’s will. I’m going home.’ And she meant that.”

The cards and prayers poured in from Atlanta, and Sister Raffaele told Sister Gear “everyone in Atlanta was always so good to me. I will always remember them and pray for them.”

Sister Raffaele died surrounded by family and friends, as well as her fellow sisters.

“She was surrounded by all she loved and by many prayers,” Sister Gear said.

She also planned her memorial Mass. Sister Gear said that she knew that Sister Raffaele wanted a poem read at her funeral Mass, but when she read the poem that Sister Raffaele had chosen, she was surprised.

“It was not her favorite poem; it was mine,” she said. “Even in her death she was doing something for everyone else. I thought ‘this is perfect. I’m crying and she’s still doing things for me.’”

Sister Raffaele was buried in Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem, Pa., at the foot of a statue of St. Teresa—her favorite saint.

“We were all lucky to know her. But I was the luckiest. I had her all the time,” Sister Gear said. “And I was only as successful as I was because I worked with someone like Sister Rita.”