“She’s a terrific caregiver. She’s saved people’s lives on more than one occasion. And through all the ups and downs in our history, she’s always been a great source of strength and support.” -Sister Grace Miller
She takes care of the children who come to The House for assistance. She tends to the sick and dying. One late evening, she even saved a life. And for more than 30 years, she has stood by the side of Sister Grace as one of her most faithful supporters.
This is the story of Sister Rita Lewis, an important member of The House of Mercy family who’s motivated by a deep sense of spirituality and a tireless commitment to help Rochester’s poor.
A mother’s loss leads to family struggles
She was born in Elmira, N.Y., one of eight children in a household with a strong commitment to the Catholic faith. But early on a tragedy turned her life upside down. She lost her mother to breast cancer. And after that, it was a struggle for her father to keep the family together.
Fortunately, relatives, parishioners and nuns from the convent across the street came to the family’s aid.
“My father had a lot of support,” Sister Rita recalled recently. “But life was hard.”
Those difficult years gave her an education in the challenges that come with economic deprivation, an experience that is, in some ways, a foundation for her own service to the poor.
“I always had a deep sense of gratitude for the people who reached out to our family. I remember thinking how wonderful it was that people did kind things for us. That motivated me to look for ways to help other people who are hurting.”
An Honor Roll student becomes an intensive care nurse
She was an academic achiever in high school. After she graduated, she got a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira. In recognition of her promising performance, a supervisor encouraged her to enroll in nursing school. At age 24, she became a Registered Nurse.
“Being able to comfort people who were suffering—the physical caring for people—that’s what drove me to be a nurse,” she said.
She also had an eye-opening experience in the hospital. A woman arrived suffering from tetanus. The doctors were surprised to run across a disease that’s so easily controlled with a routine vaccination.
The patient was a poor, African-American farmer. One day while tending her chickens, she got a small cut in her foot that opened the door to a dangerous infection. She spent a long time in intensive care, but never recovered.
“A simple cut on her foot cost her life. It made me realize that a lot of people aren’t treated fairly because they’re poor.”
A spiritual calling leads to a life-changing meeting
She definitely loved nursing. But there was a more powerful yearning in her heart. Inspired by the nuns she knew in Elmira and the work of Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, she decided to enter religious life.
Rita Lewis moved to Rochester to pursue her vows with the Sisters of Mercy. And that’s when she learned that a local nun—Sister Grace Miller–was starting a mission to help the poor and homeless in one of the poorest neighborhoods in town.
On the first day the mission opened—October 1, 1985—Sister Rita hurried over with food and supplies. From that moment on, The House of Mercy was a big part of her life.
“I was thrilled by what Sister Grace was doing and I loved being with the people there. They were desperately poor, but they had so much faith and even a sense of joy about them and they were so willing to help others. I didn’t want to leave.”
For the next two years, she was a frequent visitor, often raiding the cupboards at the Motherhouse to bring food for the poor. Then one day she learned that Sister Grace was looking for a nun to join the mission on a fulltime basis.
“I jumped at the chance,” Sister Rita said.
Housework for Sister Rita
Ever since she arrived at the doorstop of the first House of Mercy, Sister Rita has been a mainstay of our mission.
She drove countless people suffering from addiction to rehab centers in Batavia, Clifton Springs and Buffalo. She helped people who couldn’t read get Social Security and SSI. She moved homeless people into their own apartments. She cared for desperate children who came to The House for food, clothing, tutoring and a loving word.
There are also many times when she is called on to put her well-honed nursing skills to work.
She washes and bandages the feet of people whose severe diabetes threatens them with amputation. She has cared for people dying—slowly, agonizingly–from AIDS. And then there was the time an injured man rushed into The House from Hudson Avenue, knowing that people there would help him.
The man had been stabbed in the stomach. He was losing a lot of blood. His life was fading away. He was losing consciousness. Sister Rita immediately called for people to get an ambulance. Then she went to work and saved his life.
A life dedicated to caring for others
When you consider all of her contributions, it’s clear that Sister Rita has given her life to an important cause.
She has followed the example of Catherine McAuley by working tirelessly to help people in Rochester who suffer from extreme poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addiction and despair. And she has helped keep the doors of The House of Mercy open for more than 30 years.
Of course, she could have chosen a different path long ago in Elmira. She could have been a successful nurse with a very different lifestyle. But if you ask her if she would change any of the decisions that led her to The House of Mercy, you get an immediate emotional reaction.
“No, no, no,” she murmurs, shaking her head with the power of her commitment.
“This is really my calling, because I always wanted to work with the poor. But it’s not just about helping them. You learn so much from people who suffer. You learn about injustice and what life in prison is really like and what happens to people when you’re hungry and homeless. It’s important to know that truth.
“Many of the people we help have struggled to survive since the day they were born. Many of them grew up in conditions of extreme poverty and abuse and never really had a chance at a decent life. I feel honored to work with them and help them and learn from them and I admire the strength they show when they reach out to help others.
“This work is really what I dreamed about doing since I learned about the Sisters of Mercy in Elmira.”