Yesterday afternoon, Tuesday, November 21, my friend Rita Steinhagen passed away in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Sister Rita was a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She was also a life-long justice and peace activist, an avid angler, the founder of both the Free Store and The Bridge for Runaway Youth in Minneapolis, an author, a “jailbird”, and an all round inspiration to countless people – myself included.
I first meet Rita in early 1997 at the weekly peace vigil outside the corporate headquarters of Alliant TechSystems – Minnesota’s largest military contractor. These weekly gatherings marked the genesis of my life as a justice and peace activist. Of course, related to this was my coming into awareness of the crucial role that militarism plays in shaping and expanding US foreign policy.
It was due to the positive and consciousness-raising influence of Sister Rita and others that such a social and political awareness was possible. It was also due to Sister Rita and others that this awareness found expression in non-violent words and actions imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.
As a consequence of such awareness and activisn, I was able to write the following to my parents in Australia at the end of 1997: “I’m not sure where my involvement in such [justice and peace] issues will lead me. But I know that in the last year I've changed a lot - mainly in relation to the way I view [the U.S. government], militarism, and the economic system that we currently have and which is obviously not working in a just way for a vast number of people. I have no alternative to offer, yet know that there's no going back to the way I used to view things. Basically, I'm just trusting that the Spirit will lead me in right ways of thinking about such things and accordingly, in how I should live my life.”
One place to which such “involvement” did take me was the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia – home to the infamous School of the Americas (SOA).
And Rita Steinhagen – along with many other dedicated and inspiring advocates for justice and peace – was standing right there beside me.
It was at the annual protest of the SOA in November 1997 that I took the above photo of Sister Rita.
On my website, Faces of Resistance, the following words accompany this particular image: “Rita crossed the line onto the army base with 600 others in an act of civil disobedience to protest the SOA. The majority of the protesters were arrested and released with a warning. Yet for 22, including Rita, it was their second year of crossing the line. Accordingly they were trialed and sentenced to prison – in Rita’s case for six months. At her sentencing she declared to the judge: ‘When decent people get put in jail for six months for peaceful demonstration, I’m more scared of what's going on in our country than I am of going to prison’.”
Rita’s experience in the Federal Penitentiary in Perkin, Illinois was life-changing. “I was in with 300 women, all non-violent offenders” she would later say. “Most were convicted of some type of drug offence and given long sentences due to the mandatory sentences that many of them had. Five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years. Nearly 80% were mothers with small children, now being raised by others. Prisons do not rehabilitate. It is just plain warehousing of people.”
For those of us who knew Rita and her passionate commitment to social justice, it was not at all surprising that upon her release from Perkin, she became an informed and dedicated advocate for prison reform.
When I presented the performance/arts component of my thesis – one that explored the coming out process of gay men as a spiritual journey – I can vividly recall Rita sitting in the front row at St. Martin’s Table, her good friend Marv Davidov beside her. I recall that I felt very nervous as I began sharing my story in this very public way, yet all fear dissipated when I saw the encouraging look on Rita’s face. Like so many of the Sisters of St. Joseph, she was supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people – their lives and their loving relationships. I sensed that for Rita, who we loved was irrelevant. The important thing is that we love.
Rita loved in great abundance – and her love was embodied in her activism, her writing, and her genuine concern and advocacy efforts with and for all who were marginalized, oppressed, and forgotten.
I can’t be with my friends in the Twin Cities for Rita’s funeral on Friday. But my thoughts and prayers are with them as togther we grieve the loss of our dear friend Rita, and celebrate and remember her inspiring life.
Following is columnist Doug Grow’s reflection on Rita, published in today's Star Tribune.
Sister Rita was activist, writer --and a jailbird
By Doug Grow
November 22, 2006
Sister Rita Steinhagen was a little giant. Not to mention a medical technologist. And a founder of a place called the Bridge, which served runaway youth. And a founder of the Free Store, which served the poor for decades. And a resilient peace activist. And a woman who served in war-torn Latin American countries as well as the Twin Cities. And an angler, who wore a cap, “I Fish, Therefore I Lie.” And a poet and a writer and . . .
An ex-con, federal prisoner No. 88119-02.
On Tuesday afternoon, this gentle soul died at a St. Paul hospice. In 1998, this gentle but powerful soul was sentenced to serve six months in the federal pen in Pekin, Ill. She had trespassed at Fort Benning, Ga., during a protest of U.S. policies in Latin America.
The sister didn’t take this business lightly, telling the sentencing judge: “Your honor, I'm 70 years old today and I’ve never been in prison and I’m scared. I tell you, when decent people get put in jail for six months for peaceful demonstration, I’m more scared of what's going on in our country than I am of going to prison.”
The judge’s response?
“He didn’t say anything,” she recalled. “He couldn’t care less.”
The nun served her time – and her fellow prisoners.
“Don't forget us,” pleaded women who were serving long drug-related sentences when Rita was released.
And, of course, she didn't.
Even in her last days, as old friends came for final visits, the 77-year-old nun, whose health had been failing for months, offered encouragement.
For example, last week, Marv Davidov, a longtime peace activist and Rita’s fishing buddy, stopped to visit.
“What am I going to do next summer?” Davidov asked, tears in his eyes.
“Fish,” the nun said.
They both laughed.
Born in Waconia, raised in Walker, Steinhagen never set out to be a nun. But, at age 23, she went to visit a pal who had joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul. While Rita waited for her pal, she got into a conversation with the nun who directed the novices.
“Do you think I belong here?” Rita asked the nun.
“I certainly do,” was the response.
A few months later she showed up at the convent, ready to begin her new life.
In Hooked by the Spirit, the autobiography she completed last year, she wrote, “I believe that everyone is begotten of the Spirit but we are blown in many directions. In trying to capture the reason for my many wanderings, I can only surmise that the Spirit assigned to me had an extra wandering gene, which at times caused Her to push, lead or entice me to places I never dreamed of going. She has been a faithful traveling companion, and I am so grateful She was assigned to me.”
In a classic bit of twinkle-in-the-eye Rita-ese, she added: “Please don’t try to figure this out theologically. Relax. Go with it. Enjoy.”
Services for Sister Rita will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the Presentation of Our Lady Chapel, 1880 Randolph Av., St. Paul.
To read the Sisters of St. Joseph's tribute to Rita, click here.
To view a wonderful collection of images of Rita, visit the Remembering Rita galleries at CircleVision.org.
To read Rita’s article, “Federal Prison Has Changed My Life Forever”, click here.
To read “Sister Soldier”, City Pages’ extensive 1998 article about Rita, click here.
For information about Rita’s autobiography, Hooked By the Spirit: Journey of a Peaceful Activist, and to read an excerpt, click here.