This outstanding woman, was born on 5th March, 1848, in Ribafeita, a small village - Viseu Diocese - Portugal. She was daughter of Manuel Lopes and Josefa de Jesus Almeida. A few days later, she became daughter of God, receiving the name of Rita, through baptism. She grew in a very devout environment. Her family, prayed the holy rosary and had spiritual reading every evening.
Call, Charism, Spirituality and Mission.
From her childhood she showed a great devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady, St. Joseph, and a great love for the Pope as well. In fact, at this time of history, the Pope was facing many problems and was even on the verge of being exiled.
In 1830’s Masonry expropriated all the Church properties in Portugal, and ordered the closing of all male and female religious houses. Religious Institutes were forbidden to admit new members, so that in due time they could vanish. Furthermore, some bishops and priests, being from noble families, were very much attacked. Thus, they could not dedicate themselves wholly to the fulfillment of their priestly duties.
Rita's family felt a great desire to live an authentic Christian life, and God rewarded them by giving Rita a missionary call: to free the youth from religious indifferentism and immorality, through the family apostolate.
In spite of the religious persecution, she started to go from place to place, from parish to parish, to pray and teach how to pray the rosary; to invite christians to imitate the Virgin Mary, becoming thus the Apostle of the Rosary. Doing this kind of apostolate she met people who did not lead exemplary lives. She did all what she could to help them and implored the Lord to enable them to live better lives, and to guide them. Fortunately, many women and men changed their lives, and asked to receive the sacraments. But, on the other hand, many others were not happy and became her enemies who even threatened her to death.
When she was still at home with her parents, Rita dedicated much time to prayer and penance, in order to discern what the Lord wanted from her, and to have the courage to realize it.. She often visited the Benedictine Sisters, at Viseu City, about 15 kilometers from her parish. They provided her with various means of mortification. With her Confessor’s help she saw that Our Lord was calling her to the religious life. At this time the entry to any religious institute was forbidden.
Rita continued her apostolate, with the hope that one day she could officially consecrate her life to God. She rejected the young men who befriended her. She felt that she belonged to God already. As she often would repeat: "I belong to someone else".
Her spiritual life was characterized by eucharistic reparation and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She had a great desire to save many souls. She also involved all her family in the apostolate. Frequently, needy women were lodged in their house as long as it was necessary. Rita became an authentic missionary and apostle pro the family.
Foundress of the "Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ Sisters"
At the age of twenty her desire to consecrate herself to God, grew stronger, but she could not fulfill her desire at that age, due to the political situation and waited for the Lord`s time. She confided everything to her parents, who were not willing to accept her decision, because she was their favourite daughter. But Rita firmly believed that it was better to obey God than men, and at last she was admitted at the age of 29, in the only religious institute that was functioning at that time. It was a non-Portuguese Institute – Sisters of Charity, in the city of Oporto. All the local institutes had been expelled from Portugal.
But she was disappointed with the Institute's spirit and charism. It could not just meet her expectations. Thus, she did not remain there. In agreement with her spiritual director, P. Francisco Pereira, S J, she accepted economic help from a noble family. At this moment she prepared herself to initiate courageously what God was asking from her: to gather children from single mothers and to educate them. She was offered a house for this work by that noble family.
God bestowed upon Rita many gifts, particularly that of piety. She allowed herself to be guided by her spiritual director and at 32 years of age, having conquered all the obstacles posed by the political system, succeeded to found a new religious institute on 24 September, 1880, known as JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH' SISTERS, with the spirituality of the Holy Family of Nazareth. At the same time she opened a poor children’s school in her own parish, and shortly after she enlarged her activities to other dioceses in the country.
All this was accompanied by many problems, caused by the local authorities, which often demanded the closing of such institutions. These reached their climax when republicans succeeded to vanish the Monarchy and to establish a Republic in 1910. Unfortunately, at this moment a religious persecution against the Church broke out. The government expropriated all Church property. All the foreign Institutes left Portugal.
Mother Rita took refuge together with some of her sisters and some children, in her parents’ house. They escaped disguised as gypsies and continued to dress as such, till it was needed.
Rita’s death bathed in the reflected glory of Sanctity.
For a period of three years they enjoyed a relative peace. She was able to gather at her parents’s home the sisters that had been scattered. Furthermore, during this time, she was inspired to send small groups of sisters to Brazil, where they could continue to live their ideal of educating poor children. This move spared the Institute from coming to an end.
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By Justin Soutar
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