By Diane Herring
MORTON – For the past 10 years, Sister Rita Goedken has been the face of Morton’s Excel Community and Learning Center (ECLC). In mid-December she returned to Dubuque, Iowa, and the Sisters of St. Francis. As a person who admits she does not like heat and humidity, when asked how she came to be in Morton, Sister Rita gives an answer that could be a lyric to a country song.
“Each person has a limited number of years to ‘walk the talk,’” she says, referring to committing to giving back to and serving the community. She not only “talks the talk” but “walks the walk” as well.
Joining the community of the Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque 55 years ago, Sister Rita has served in areas from Wisconsin to Oregon and from Michigan to Mississippi.
Born in Petersburg, Iowa and reared on a farm in a community she describes as, “very rural, smaller than Morton.”
“I had 11 brothers and sisters,” she says. “We grew up on a 160-acre farm where we raised chickens, dairy cattle and hogs. It is, I think, the root of my passion to take care of the earth.”
Trained as a teacher, having majored in history and minored in math, she taught in Iowa and Oregon and worked in pastoral administration in Michigan and Wisconsin. She served eight years to the leadership committee of Sisters of St. Francis.
She adds, “While serving on the leadership team, our community studied water issues. The Sisters commissioned us to come up with a project, one that all Sisters of St. Francis could support. As a result, Sister Water Project (SWP) was developed in 2006 and focuses on water, providing clean drinking water in areas where the need is the greatest, where it would benefit the poorest of the poor.”
“The SWP is active in Honduras and Tanzania,” Sister Rita says. “In Tanzania the SWP has completed 203 wells. All 203 are operative. In Honduras the SWP has collaborated with other entities to bring safe drinking water to remote villages that currently don’t have access to it.”
In the mid-1990’s the Franciscan Sisters decided to establish missions in low-income areas with multicultural populations. Morton is one of the sites selected. Sister Rita had been here to visit, and something sparked.
“It was just the place I needed to be,” she says.
So, Sister Rita came to Morton where she has helped the ECLC Excel to grow and serve.
“The first Franciscan Sisters to work in Morton came in 1999,” says Sister Eileen Hauswald, Director, ECLC. “Sisters Nona, Camilla, and Terri worked with local volunteers and implemented the initial programs, like the Faith in Action meal deliveries to elderly and shut-ins and the after-school tutoring for children and summer day camps. “Pnykii McDougle was a student at ECLC Summer Day Camps growing up and now, as a student majoring in education at Mississippi State University, is a teaching assistant in the after school tutoring program. She says, “Sister Rita is an inspiration to me.”
“Most people will speak of Sister Rita’s work ethic and they would be right,” says Claudia Rowland, Teacher Coordinator. “But I will remember her love of history. I’ll miss her very much.
Looking back, Sister Rita says, “When I came to Morton there was a recession but people in Morton came in and supported the center and our work. Today there is more life in town. Wonderful people come into the center and volunteer time, talents and materials, all gratis. ‘I would like to see everybody from every tribe, tongue and nation represented in our community come and participate in our programs and services. I’ve met a host of generous, competent, wonderful people. For each I am grateful. It is the people I will miss and remember.”
For 10 years Rita Goedken has walked the walk and talked the talk, managing to inspire volunteers to join her on the journey. Morton and Scott county will miss her.
(NOTE: It is requested that no gifts be given, however, contributions to Excel or the Sister Water Project would be appreciated and received in honor of Sister Rita.)
(Diane Herring is a member of the Excel Center Advisory Board.)