Marita Zeller was born on February 5, 1933, to Maurice and Beatrice Zeller. She was the third of four children and the only girl. Since she was the only girl, her two older brothers and one younger brother felt that she was very special to her parents; therefore, being big brothers, they often teased her.
Marita received the calling to be a sister at a very young age. She would often say, “I knew that I wanted to be a sister when I was four years old. The sisters would ring the doorbell to our house to ask if the boys could come to serve Mass. They brought me cookies and I would play with their rosaries. I knew that I wanted to be like them.”
When she was in the fifth grade in St. Matthias School in Chicago, she learned about slavery in her United States history class. She was appalled by the thought that her country could do such a thing, and said to herself, “Someday I’m going to do something about that.”
After graduating from St. Matthias Grade School and completing two years at Alvernia High School, Marita answered the call she had heard when she was four years old. In the fall of 1949, Marita entered St. Joseph Convent in Milwaukee. After her year as a postulant, she was received on June 13, 1950, and given the name Sister Justinia.
During the following years she studied, worked and prayed in preparation for her Profession of Vows and her ministry of teaching. She taught students from first grade to junior high, and high school to adults.
At St. Ann’s in Barrington, her first mission, she enjoyed teaching religion, reading, and math to her first graders. She saw how children learned and developed. Next she was asked to go to the Motherhouse to teach high school Latin and to be Freshman Aspirant Mistress. She was involved in the formation of young women aspiring to be sisters.
When the Aspirancy closed, she was asked what she would like to do. She responded, “I know that the Holy Spirit is calling me to serve in the African American Community.” She was sent to Holy Angels School in Chicago to teach seventh grade. There she helped the students to develop their talents and gifts to their fullest potential. With her help, a group of seventh and eighth grade students started a school newspaper called The Black Informer. With pride, they would feature their own Black artists and writers.
After the death of her father and illness of her mother, she answered the call to go to Alvernia High School, where she taught English and religion. There she was instrumental in getting the English department to put in place a Black literature course. She established a Liturgy Committee and a service course in which students volunteered at different sites.
When Alvernia closed in 1989, she answered the call to go back to Holy Angels to teach the instruction class in the Catholic faith to new school parents. Soon she was preparing adults for baptism in the RCIA program. She was also part of the women’s “Christ Renews His Parish” weekends. She wrote, “I may have taught the Catholic faith, but they taught me faith, the kind that is put to work. They had a living, walking love of the Bible.”
Sister Marita summed up her twenty years at Holy Angels School saying, “I soon learned that it was not what I would do to further the cause of racial justice in our country, but how I would be enriched, changed, if I but open myself to such a warm, welcoming, faith-filled, persistent people who taught me what faith 24/7 really is.”
Once again the Spirit called and Sister Marita came to St. Viator Parish where she was asked to join SPRED, a religious education program for intellectually challenged adults. She also conducted a Bible study group of men and women who studied the Bible with a prayerful response which inspired their lives.
Sister Marita answered her last call in 2019 and came to live at Sacred Heart in Milwaukee. Her loss of hearing increased, but she never lost her smile. She joyfully and gratefully lived her ministry of prayer and presence. Two important events during these years brought her great joy. In 2020, she celebrated her 70th Jubilee as a School Sister of St. Francis, and on February 5, 2023, she celebrated her 90th birthday. Sister Marita’s family gave a birthday party for all the sisters at Sacred Heart. Sister Marita was almost totally deaf, but her sparkling eyes and big smile accepted all the greetings and love.
Sister Marita answered God’s last call on March 31, 2023, and peacefully went into the arms of the Lord. We could hear her say, “Here I am, Lord.”
Thank you, Sister Marita, for your 73 years of love, service, and faithful Franciscan living.