Terry Witherell
October 20, 2015

Some people call her “Mother Teresa of the Ozarks,” and after spending a day with Sister Rita Schonhoff, who has served the people of southeast Missouri for the past 25 years, we can understand why. We recently had the chance to travel throughout some of the counties in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau with Sister Rita and some of the people who work with her as part of Whole Health Outreach. The impact that Sister Rita and Whole Health Outreach have had on the people in this area—and the love the people have for Sister Rita—is evident everywhere. Sister Rita was nominated for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award in both 2013 and 2014. In recent years, Catholic Extension has provided support to Whole Health Outreach.

In 1989, seeing the dire need for health care in southeast Missouri, Sister Rita worked with several parishes to found WHO, which gives aid to those who are unable to access health care.  At the time, Sister Rita thought that she was only coming home to Missouri for a few years to care for her mother and to obtain a nursing degree, so that she could return to where she had been serving in Central America. But when Sister Rita saw the living conditions of some of the people in Carter County and the neighboring counties, she saw a need at home. In this area, roughly 22 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

“I found my Central America right here,” she said.

Programs that were started at that time, and which continue are:

  • Healthwise for Life home-visiting and exercise programs for older adults
  • School counseling program for children and teens at risk
  • Chaplain outreach to the terminally ill and their families
  • Families-in-Crisis Network, which gives a 'hand up' and services to promote individual and family self-sufficiency
  • Casa Guadalupe, a residence for domestic violence survivors and their children, staffed by employees and trained volunteers.

Sister Rita is quick to remind us of the number of people, both paid and volunteer, who make all of this happen. We saw firsthand the joy that they bring when they visit people’s homes and really listen to their stories and hear what their needs are. We saw the importance of the senior centers that provide exercise and a healthy meal to those who come there. We heard from a mom who lived at Casa Guadalupe years ago when she was in an abusive relationship, and who is now happily married and has three beautiful children, about what a lifesaver this was for her when she needed help most.

But just as quick as Sister Rita is to point out all of the people who are part of WHO and make all this happen, others are quick to point out what an amazing woman of faith Sister Rita is, and what an inspiration she is to those who work with her. Throughout the whole day, we saw the smiles that reflected Sister Rita’s smile of joy in her ministry, as she visited with everyone.

Pope Francis has called all of us to go out to the peripheries and help the poor. We are proud to support Sister Rita, as she has been doing exactly that for 25 years in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

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