Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 26, 2010
God's love embraced her even as a baby
Through 50 years of religious life, Sr. Rita Gleason has kept her smile . . . as well as her piano
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - Becoming a nun was a relatively easy choice for Sister Rita Gleason. After saying goodbye to a boyfriend, she joyfully joined the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul at the age of 17. It was as if God had handpicked her at birth. And maybe he did.
Born the youngest of eight children on a mixed farm near Yorkton, Sask., Gleason was brought up in a faith-filled Catholic family that prayed the rosary together.
As a child looking at the deep blue Saskatchewan sky, she recalls feeling as if God was enveloping her. "I always felt totally loved by God," she said in an interview. "I always felt God's presence."
Today, Gleason, one of eight Sisters of Providence in Edmonton, is happier than ever about her vocational choice, which she says has provided her with opportunities, challenges and, more importantly, a close relationship with the Lord.
"I have no regrets," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm totally at peace and just full of gratitude that God has been faithful throughout all these years and has kept calling me."
Throughout 50 years in religious life, Gleason has always served with a happy face. "I think the most important thing is to keep your sense of humour. Don't take yourself too seriously."
She knew at an early age that God was calling her. At age six, when she learned about the miraculous story of her birth, she knew God had spared her for a reason.
Gleason was a blue baby at birth, meaning she was born with cyanosis as a result of a congenital cardiac or pulmonary defect that causes inadequate oxygenation of the blood. Doctors gave up on baby Rita, giving her just hours to live.
Her dad knew better. After praying the rosary with the family at home, he called the parish priest, who rushed to the hospital and prayed over baby Rita. She miraculously got better and was released from hospital two months later.
"When my dad told me that story I remember feeling the strength of God's love for me," Gleason said. "I thought that God must have chosen me or must have kept me alive for a reason. Even as a child you can think those things."
One day her dad asked her if she would consider being a sister. "I said, 'Yes, I have, but how can I be if I don't know much about my religion and you have to know a lot to be a sister." At that point she was attending elementary school in a one-room public school and only studied catechism in the summer.
But when it came time to go to high school, her parents enrolled her in Sacred Heart Academy, which was run by the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, a Ukrainian Catholic order.
Once, during summer vacation, two of Gleason's cousins, both Sisters of Providence, arrived in the area for holidays. She spoke to them about the order. When she learned the sisters were involved in ministries such as teaching and nursing, even secretarial work, she was hooked.
"When they mentioned secretarial work I thought I could do that. I don't think I want to be a schoolteacher, maybe a nurse. But certainly I could do secretarial work."
However, Gleason was an accomplished pianist who had been taking piano lessons for years. Giving up music was a sacrifice she was not ready to make. She remembers playing the piano at her sister's home. "I was almost in tears thinking this is the last time I'm going to play the piano." But as she would soon learn, "God takes what you have."
Gleason firmly believes her vocation was a call from God. "It's not your decision. It is God calling you and you respond or you don't respond. But it's God's initiative."
She remembers one night arguing with Jesus, saying, "Jesus, just stop bothering me; go to someone else, call someone else. Don't call me."
She finally surrendered. The Sisters of Providence, for their part, accepted her as a novice. But as a teenager, Gleason was almost scandalized when she received a letter asking her to buy black shoes and black stockings. "Oh mama! I'm going to be changing from a teenager to an old woman overnight," she protested.
At that point the 17-year-old was dating a boy from Saskatoon. "We were dating and when I told him I was going to be a sister, he just laughed. He just thought it was a big joke. He said, 'You'll be back in a year and I'll be waiting for you.'"
Gleason was apprehensive about the novitiate.
"But as soon as I got to Kingston and met the sisters and met the other group that was entering I was fine." Some 15 young women entered the Sisters of Providence that year - 1960. A total of 40 were in the novitiate with Gleason. "We were all around the same age, so I had lots of companionship."
Her fears about having to give up music proved groundless. There was a piano in the recreation room so the sisters got her playing. "About two weeks after I entered, the one in charge of education approached me and she said, 'How would you like to continue studying your music?' I said I'd love to."
So her ministry was set - she would become a music teacher. After her final vows, Gleason began teaching music to 50 students a week. "I was also in charge of church music on the weekend. That just went with the job."
Gleason later served as vocations director for her order and in 1987 she went to work in the mountains of Guatemala for five years.
"I loved it," she says. "I loved the people; they are so friendly. I loved the simplicity of life. I really felt at that point that I was really living out our mission of St. Vincent de Paul."
At the mission, she taught music, led catechism classes and accompanied people to the hospital.
Following her return to Canada in 1992, Gleason studied at Regis College in Toronto and in 1996 headed west to do parish work in Fort Saskatchewan. She quit in 1999 after she realized the lay people had everything under control and didn't need her.
After several people told her she had a gift for working with the sick, she became a pastoral worker at the University of Alberta Hospital. In 2001, she moved to St. Joseph's Auxiliary Hospital.
She left that position in 2008. Since then she has been giving private piano lessons to about nine students in her southside apartment.
Gleason also serves on the archdiocesan vocations committee and on her own congregation's committee.
WE MUST INVITE
"I think there are vocations," she says matter-of-factly. "I think that God is calling people but we need to do the inviting. We have to still invite people."
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