On May 9, 1929 the seventh child was born to Frank and Barbara Johnson in Pineview, Colorado. This little girl was baptized Mary Agnes at Corpus Christi Church. Mary Agnes’ mother was of Native American descent and Mary Agnes was very proud of her Native American heritage. Having six older siblings, Mary Agnes would say later in life “I’m the oldest of the last five, in all nine brothers and two sisters. All the children attended Corpus Christi School in Colorado Springs and were taught by the School Sisters of St. Francis.
Graduating from eighth grade, Mary Agnes went to Colorado Springs High School. After High School she went to work at the Education Office. During those years the Sisters kept an eye on her. One day Sister Immaculate invited her over to the convent. She asked her if she had ever thought about becoming a Sister. Mary Agnes had not but that visit planted the seed. Months passed and the religious vocation idea persisted. In 1949 Mary Agnes was on her way to join the School Sisters of St. Francis. She was received on June 13, 1950 and given the name Sister Ritaclare. From that day on Sister Ritaclare nourished and cherished her Franciscan Religious vocation.
In Sister’s own words, “Walking in the garden one autumn day, I reviewed the past 70 years of my Franciscan vocation as a School Sister of St. Francis. Reflecting upon the gift of these years, deep gratitude and rejoicing arose from within me.
My love of nature, especially trees, has nurtured my spirit when depleted and fills me with joy even today when I am outdoors. As a youngster I recall climbing trees with my brother and other neighbor children. Standing in a tree I saw the world from a different vantage point. Trees and mountains gave me a sense of freedom and support which I later discovered as essential to my well-being. As a child I roamed the Colorado hills that surrounded the area where I lived. Each day I woke up to snow-covered Pikes Peak. At times she took off her white dress. She was still very beautiful.
It is in nature where I commune with my beloved Creator. It is there where the Spirit helps me discern. In nature I can struggle with life and yet feel restored. Sitting by a waterfall, the water seems to pulse through my veins until my heart is filled with new life.
As a child and as a young Sister my relationship with God was important in a formal way. But it was not until I was much older that I recognized and embraced God as my friend. I am forever grateful for my vocation which continues to call me ever deeper in relationship with God. Through ministry, the grace of my religious vocation has touched my very core with an insatiable desire to listen to God’s Spirit within me.
My years as a vowed religious woman were busy – filled with teaching children and later caring for the spirits of hospitalized patients and more recently my fellow School Sisters as a chaplain. Now in the more recent years in my ministry of presence I am aware of God’s gift – the interior freedom He gave me. This gift which I often experience when I am in nature has sustained me through all the restrictions and demands of ministry and community living. Still to this very day, this freedom exists as I continue to practice quieting my heart to catch the Spirit’s voice deep inside me. My vocation, the spiritual gift God gave me, prompts me to share some ministry experiences with you to show how my relationship with God grew.
My very first year of teaching started in Chilton, Wisconsin where I taught first grade for four years. I was a first year teacher who had not yet completed college. Through my superior’s orders I believed I was sent by God to Chilton, but I had misgivings about my effectiveness.
From small city to big – I moved to Chicago and taught on the city’s south side at St Clare’s and St. Martin’s. Instead of mountains we saw smoke stacks of steel mills rising into the sky. Relief came when I was sent to teach in a small, unincorporated town in northern Wisconsin called Glidden. There I taught children in grades one through four all in one classroom. After one school year I left this earthy railroad town and returned to the hectic and busy streets of Chicago’s south side. My superior had confidence in my teaching ability and soon I was teaching seventh and eighth grades.
While I enjoyed teaching the children and felt confident in my abilities as a teacher, my soul screamed for trees not smoke stacks and for blue sky not smog. Periodically I would escape using Chicago’s mass transit system in search of more pleasant, inviting terrain by hopping on the elevated train and heading west to Oak Lawn.
During my time in Chicago other people craved freedom. Protests in Chicago calling for equality and an end to housing discrimination began and spilled into riots across the south side. It was time for change not only within our nation but also within the School Sisters of St. Francis.
Soon I recognized big city life was not for me and when Sister Ana Marie Noth invited me to help her in Guatemala, I left Chicago for Central America. In Guatemala I ministered to those in need after an earthquake hit this small, mountainous country. After things returned to normal I returned to the States and accepted a job outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
While living in New Mexico I felt called to refocus my ministry from education to pastoral ministry. I prepared for this change by taking Clinical Pastoral Education. This preparation enabled me to serve over twenty-five years as a hospital chaplain while living in different parts of the country.
Upon my return to Wisconsin, my heart was opened to the world of aging and retirement at Campbellsport, Wisconsin as Director of Pastoral Care. Here my heart was once again filled with gratitude and joy as I listened to the “stirring of the Spirit” and to my Sisters.
As I sum up my life, I know I was blessed as a vowed woman and School Sister of St. Francis. I felt honored to be given the wisdom to look forward to God’s heavenly Kingdom with anticipation and joy.”
As your 70th Jubilee Year came to a close, a heart condition changed your activity and daily pattern but not your relationship with God and nature. You would always say, “I’m ready.” On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, God called and you were ready! Now enjoy eternal peace and joy in God’s Heavenly Kingdom.