Terry Witherell

Van Buren is located in the southeastern part of Missouri, near the Arkansas border, in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. When Sister Rita Schonhoff arrived in Van Buren in 1989, she had just obtained her nursing license. Having spent some time in Central America, she had considered returning there to do ministry. But when she arrived in Van Buren, Sister Rita said she “found (her) Central America, right here.”  What she meant was that the poverty and lack of health care she found in this area was just as bad as what she had witnessed in Central America.

Right to left: Sr. Cynthia Brinkman, Marsha Towner and Sr. Rita Schonhoff.
Right to left: Sr. Cynthia Brinkman, Marsha Towner and Sr. Rita Schonhoff.

As Sister Rita began to visit the local clinics and provide prenatal care to young single moms in extreme poverty, she often saw evidence of domestic abuse. This led her to open Casa Guadalupe, a residence for survivors of domestic violence and their children that is staffed both by paid employees and trained volunteers. Before she opened this shelter, no other service like it existed in any of the surrounding five-area counties.

Today, Sister Rita and her Whole Health Outreach (WHO) organization now provide a wide range of services to those in the community, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They have a Healthwise for Life home-visiting and exercise program for older adults; a school counseling program for children and teens at risk; chaplain outreach to those who are terminally ill and their families; and a Families-in-Crisis Network that gives a 'hand up' and provides services to promote individual and family self-sufficiency. Several violence prevention projects have been created to reach large numbers of young people and community groups and include the Darkness to Light, Stewards of Children Program; Healthy Teen Relationships; and Safer On-Line.

Right to left: Sr. Rita regularly conducts home visits, ministering to the elderly and disabled.
Sr. Rita regularly conducts home visits, ministering to the elderly and disabled.

Sister Rita was one of the nominees for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award this year. When we spoke with her about her nomination and her work, she said, “What I do is an expression of my faith. It’s what it’s all about.”

We had the chance to see that faith in action when we accompanied Sister Rita and some of her staff on their home visits to the elderly and disabled in the area. Often, this monthly visit to check in on people who live in isolated areas is the only visit they may have. The volunteers and staff of WHO bring Christ’s love to everyone they visit.

We asked some of the people who work with Sister Rita about what would happen if WHO wasn’t there. One volunteer remarked, “I couldn’t even imagine. There are needs here that are very primary, and still not being met.”

People often ask us what distinguishes a “mission diocese” from a “non-mission diocese.” The conditions that Sister Rita found when she arrived in Van Buren help to explain this difference. In many mission dioceses, there is no infrastructure for social services and public health care, unlike organized structures in other parts of the country where people take it for granted. It is only because of the Catholic Church and women like Sister Rita that help is available to those in need.

Sister Rita, and the work that she does through Whole Health Outreach in some of the remotest parts of Missouri, serve as a reminder to all of us. We need to continue to support the missions right here in the United States.

- Terry Witherell, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension

PS: View more photos from our trip to the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau here.