At the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI spoke of “women impregnated by the Spirit of the Gospel,” and more recently Pope Francis has called for a “new theology of women.” There are thousands of Catholic lay women discerning how to share their gifts and responding to ministerial calls. In many cases, these women are well-trained and highly educated professionals who bring a wealth of life experience to their work in parishes, diocesan offices, faith-based non-profit organizations, hospitals, schools, and many other settings.
This post on Rita Emmennegger is a second in a series which celebrates Catholic lay women’s vocations and profiles some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. Last month’s profile was on Kate Burke and her New Lectio Divina ministry. If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.
– Rhonda Miska
About once a year while I was growing up and attending Sunday Mass at St. Bernard’s parish in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, Rita Emmenegger would speak in place of the homily. She shared the story of her medical mission work in Nicaragua and of her hospitality to Nicaraguan children in need of medical care. For me, her testimonies served as one of the first windows into the larger world – a world I could hardly imagine – far beyond our comfortable suburb.
Years later, as a college senior, I received a phone call from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps inviting me to spend two years serving in Cusmapa, Nicaragua. It was memories of Emmenegger’s Sunday morning stories that helped bolster my courage to say yes to that call, and to step into that larger world. So, as I continue this series which celebrates the ways women discern and answer calls, it feels fitting to hold up the life and ministry of Rita Emmenegger: nurse, medical missioner, wife, mother of four children, and foster mother to seven Nicaraguan children.
Emmenegger names her primary call as the call to nursing. She recently retired after 35 years at St. Mary’s hospital in Madison, having spent nine years in Pediatrics and 26 years in Family Care Suites. Of that work, she says, “it was more than a career, it was a ministry.”
She met her husband Ed, a former Catholic priest, when he was serving as part of a retreat team, and credits his “deep conviction to his faith” as a reason for their falling in love. After marriage, while raising their four children (three of whom are adopted) they felt the call to reach out further. So, one night, they sat down around the kitchen table with their kids to propose extending their family circle.
“We said, ‘we have a lot of love in our house, so what if we had another child live with us for a while?’” she remembers, some twenty-five years later. Her children’s positive response led Emmenegger to contact the social worker who had assisted them with adopting their children. That social worker put her in touch with another nurse who coordinated foster homes for children coming from overseas for medical care in the United States.
“Would you be willing to have Vicky? She’s coming next month,” Emmenegger recalls the invitation from that nurse. Vicky had undergone surgery in Nicaragua for a problem with her intestines and needed additional surgery. Emmenegger accompanied Vicky to all her medical appointments, stayed with her in the hospital, and hosted her in their family home during Vicky’s three month stay in the U.S.
After helping Vicky through her surgery and recovery, Emmenegger felt drawn to offer her nursing skills in Nicaragua, knowing there were many children who – like Vicky – needed medical care but couldn’t access it. She traveled first with Healing the Children, and then with the Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the Americas.
Emmenegger’s first of 15 trips to Nicaragua was in the 1990s, shortly after the end of the Contra war which had embroiled the small country in violent conflict for over a decade following the 1979 Revolution. The medical team was treated with kindness and hospitality. “We were accepted in our humanitarian work,” Emmenegger notes.
She and her teammates dialogued often about how to engage with Nicaraguans without “coming in as the ‘great white savior,’” as she describes it. The team always sought to partner with Nicaraguan doctors and medical professionals so there was an exchange of knowledge and friendship.
Her transition back to daily life in the United States after her trips was challenging. “I would come home and have my weepy periods – going to the bathroom, turning on a light switch, flushing a toilet – we take all this for granted,” she explains.
Emmenegger’s absence from her husband and children was a challenge as well: “It was a challenge for Ed to be at home with the kids while I was away. My parents would come and stay when our kids were little. I was gone a week to twelve days each time.” Ed joined his wife on one of her subsequent trips to Nicaragua, and later two of her daughters joined her as well.
After Vicky, Emmenegger went on to be a foster mother to six other Nicaraguan children. One of them, Henry, was only four years old when he traveled to the United States for medical care for three months. He had swallowed lye and had major damage to his esophagus.
Several years ago, while on a medical mission in Nicaragua, Emmenegger was reunited with Henry, 15 years after his stay in the U.S. “He hugged me and we started to cry.” Knowing that he was studying medicine, Emmenegger had brought him a stethoscope as a gift. “It’s a lovely success story,” she says with gratitude. Henry isn’t the only one of her foster children that has followed her footsteps into the medical field. Ashanti – who lived with the family when she was 14 – is now 32 years old and is completing her medical residency. Vicky is working as a radiology technician.
Following the call of the spirit and in light of certain changes in the Diocese of Madison, Emmenegger left the Catholic church in the Madison diocese in 2006, and sought out a more inclusive space for worship. She now worships at Holy Wisdom Monastery, an ecumenical Benedictine community where she also bakes communion bread, proclaims scripture, and is part of a team that helped to develop a children’s worship group.
Holy Wisdom Monastery is an ecumenical monastic community in Madison, Wisconsin focused on prayer, hospitality, justice, and care for the earth. Holy Wisdom (formerly known as St. Benedict’s Center) is one of only two women’s religious communities in the country which have transitioned from being Catholic to ecumenical. Emmenegger speaks enthusiastically about her new faith community and “how welcoming they are…reaching out to people and caring for the land. They are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk…I love it!”
She and her husband, Ed, who will be retiring next week after 12 years as pastoral associate at Blessed Sacrament Parish, have accepted an invitation to travel to Haiti together to serve at Fond Blanc. The orphanage is home to fifty Haitian children, most of whom lost their mothers in childbirth.
“Ed and I will be staying in the orphanage – it’s heaven for me to know we’ll be staying with kids. Ed will be helping to rebuild a kitchen in a building that was damaged in the earthquake,” while she will be using her nursing skills in a clinic with patients who are severely malnourished or recovering from burns or other injuries, she explained. “It’s something we will be doing together as a ministry. I’m excited about our future prospects together as a married couple,” she says.
Now that she is retired from nursing, most mornings she and her husband are part of Liturgy of the Hours morning prayer at Holy Wisdom Monastery. This ancient practice in this new, ecumenical community nourishes her as she continues to listen deeply to the call of the Spirit.
“We sing the psalms – I try to take a phrase or a word, let it sit with me and recall it during the day. Just to recall that word…and know the presence of God in my life. It’s so big! It is quite a gift in my life.”