“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord will award to me. . .”
– 2 Timothy 4: 7-8
Just a few hours after our October 4 feast day celebration, our Franciscan “race enthusiast” journeyed toward her own finish line, with victory in sight.
Rita Mae Vukovic was born in Dayton, Ohio, the eighth of thirteen children born to Paul and Catherine Vukovic. Rita recalled her Catholic roots in a family that celebrated its faith as an integral part of life. Praying the rosary after dinner was a family tradition. Friends who came over to play were expected to join in and finish the rosary with the family.
Having met our Franciscan Sisters during her St. Anthony grade school years, and following her own older sister Kate, Rita entered the Oldenburg Community just after high school. While her early teaching ministry took Rita (then S. Anselm) to elementary schools in Indiana and Ohio, she is perhaps best remembered for the nearly fifty years during which she taught high school students at Bishop Flaget in Chillicothe, Ohio and at Scecina, St. Mary Academy, and Cardinal Ritter in Indianapolis.
An article in the Indianapolis Archdiocesan newspaper referred to S. Rita as “the non-nonsense nun.” Discipline and dedication were part of her secret to success as a teacher. The article acknowledged that in other ways Rita appeared to be the gentle follower of St. Francis who lived to serve God and other people. A colleague from Cardinal Ritter noted that “S. Rita taught mainly freshmen. When they came to her class they were generally terrified of her, and remained so for the whole year. By the time they graduated, they all loved her.” This was witnessed by her following of graduates who returned to visit with their former teacher.
Rita was known to offer special support to students with family problems and to provide extra tutoring for those struggling with school work. She also made special efforts to secure food or clothing for needy families. She stated her own philosophy: “Helping students build character and become ‘whole’ people is much more important than molding them into English students or book learners. And I’m certainly for the underdog. I look for the student who really needs help, and I do my utmost to help that kid feel important.”
Describing herself as a “nun on the run,” Rita recalled two adventures which made several newspaper headlines. One was the gift from friends at a Cardinal Ritter fundraiser who paid for her to ride four laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a professional race car driver. “At 175 mph,” she said, “it only takes about two minutes to complete four laps, so my prayer had to be short and to the point!” At the next year’s event Rita “won” a stunt ride in a T-6 Texan Warbird airplane—anything for the good of the school.
Ranking even higher among her life’s remembrances are several recognitions Rita received. These include a West Deanery “Called to Excellence” award in 1998, a “Tribute to Teachers” award in 2002, and the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award, a papal honor that recognizes lay people for their service to the church.
Watching sports, particularly football and basketball, were favorite extracurricular activities. Rita also loved to travel on archdiocesan pilgrimages—within the United States, as well as to Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Ireland. Despite her class competitions in selling World’s Finest Chocolate bars, Hershey’s almonds were her personal favorite.
We offer our sympathy to Rita’s family, especially to her sister Mary and brothers Bob and Tom, as well as to her faithful friend S. Mary Ellen Gillman, her classmates, companions, former students, and friends. We are grateful to all who cared for her in St. Clare Hall.
All of S. Rita’s alumni can quote the saying which also hung in a frame on her bedroom wall to this very day: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good is better and the better, best.” We know that, throughout her life, Rita experienced the good becoming better; we trust that, as she has entered eternal life, she is aware of having found the best.
In fond remembrance,
for the General Council