Special to The Dialog
Nellie Kahalehili awoke in her hospital room one day last year to find Sister Mary Rita Smith sitting in a chair next to her bed.
“I had to think, ‘who is this?’” the 93-year-old Kahalehili, a retired nurse, said. “But it was good to see her. It made me feel good. I didn’t get too many visitors.”
Marion Biederman (left) and Dorothy Smith (right), residents of Marydale, confer with Sister Mary Rita Smith at Marydale Retirement Village. (The Dialog/wwwDonBlakePhotography.com)
The visitation was part of a day’s work for Sister Mary Rita, pastoral/community services coordinator at Marydale Retirement Center in Newark. But her work is specialized, bringing comfort and a desire to help residents of the 108-unit complex overcome challenges such as working their way through red tape to acquire benefits through various government and agency programs.
Sister Mary Rita’s work at Marydale, which is operated by Catholic Charities, is funded in part by the Annual Catholic Appeal. The goal for this year’s appeal, with the theme “Do You Love Me? Feed My Sheep” taken from John 21:15-19, is $4,347,000. Money raised will support more than 30 ministries of the Diocese of Wilmington.
Commitment Weekend, when Catholics in the pews will be asked to pledge to the 2013 campaign, will be April 13-14.
For Kahalehili, Sister Mary Rita is someone she can rely upon; her closest relative, also elderly, lives in Perryville, Md. Kahalehili is a widow, and her only child drowned years ago.
“She’s like my good aunt, Aunt Mary,” Kahalehili said of the nun. “She’s always there when I need her.” Once, after one of Kahalehili’s recent hospital stays, Sister Mary Rita worked with her doctors and pharmacy to clear up a mistake over her prescriptions.
“Sometimes I feel I have to be a detective to find out what is going on,” said Sister Mary Rita, a member of Scranton, Pa.-based Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Her hospital visit with Kahalehili fits Sister Mary Rita’s vision of pastoral services, which she described as working to ensure “the well-being, physically, mentally and spiritually, of a person.” She also arranges for a Mass and an interfaith service each month.
Before coming to Marydale in 2010, Sister Mary Rita was a pastoral assistant at Andrews AFB in Maryland. While she worked with a retired population at that base, most of her work was with young families. Previously she taught and had been a principal of Catholic schools.
She’s discovered that she’s “a resource person” who can sometimes best help a resident by simply sitting back and listening.
“That’s all they need, to get it out, think out loud.”
Other times she takes a more direct role, such as working with Kahalehili and with Maggie Gagnon, 63, who lives on a disability pension.
“She’s always at my beck and call,” Gagnon said of Sister Mary Rita. “She answers questions for me, especially when I had problems with my mother,” Millie Gagnon.
Millie lived at Marydale when Maggie moved in four years ago. Millie developed Alzheimer’s disease, which caused most of Maggie’s stress over her mother. “I felt I could talk to Sister Mary Rita and be very open about it,” she said. “She always encouraged me to take care of myself. That was the hardest thing; to remember that I did not do any good if I gave everything to my mother and did not take care of myself.”
Sister Mary Rita was in a unique situation when the two Gagnons lived across from each other.
“We did a lot of listening, didn’t we,” Sister Mary Rita said to Maggie. “I know how hard it was on her because she had to bear the brunt of it.”
Millie Gagnon, who turns 80 on June 1, now lives in a Wilmington nursing home.
But Maggie Gagnon is not alone at Marydale. A cousin lives on the same courtyard, and there’s always Sister Mary Rita.
“She’s just a phone call away. I know that,” Gagnon said of Sister Mary Rita. “It’s important to have someone who’s looking out for you, who’s got your back.”