Rita was born (in 111 degree = 44 degree C heat) in Charlton Bush Nursing Hospital on 19th January 1928, the fourth of six children for John and Alice Hayes. She was baptised on February 12 in Culgoa. The story of her various names is worth the telling. Her own account goes like this, “Baptised Rita Ann, Mum and Dad planned that I would be called Ann, but by the time I
came to life, Danny O’Hagan was also part of the family. Danny came straight from Ireland aged 18 and went up to Culgoa to do seasonal work.
He was taken into the family and never really left. Danny called me by the Irish form of Ann, which is Nancy or “Nuncy” as Danny said it. Aged 11, I went to Ballarat to school. Mum said that if I couldn’t be Ann, I wasn’t going to be Nancy. It was a cow’s name. I would be called by my first name, Rita.
When I became a Sister of Mercy, I became Sister Aloysius. I am Nance to most people in the area in which I spent my early years, and Rita to people elsewhere.” For some of her friends, she became blessed Rita of Culgoa. Rita’s first school was the Cocum Reserve State School. In June 1938, she came to Ballarat where she boarded for six months with relatives and attended Loreto College in Dawson Street. She was desperately homesick
and did not want to return after the holidays. Her mothers all too early and sudden death at this time brought heartache and difficult decisions for her father who begged her to return to school in Ballarat, this time to the boarding school at Sacred Heart College. Rita acquiesced reluctantly and, for us as for Rita, that move was to be an extraordinary blessing. Rita’s SHC school companions remember her as fun-loving and irrepressibly mischievous, life-time characteristics that have brought joy to so many people. In retrospect,
Rita would name her behaviour at this time as “challenging”. It was not until she left school and reconnected with her roots over a two-year period that she was able to deal with the death of the mother she so loved.
Rita joined the Sisters of Mercy in August 1945. Her profession on March 3, 1948 inaugurated a life-long ministry of mercy, first in secondary education, and then in social work. The vision of Catherine McAuley who established the House of Mercy for young women at risk in early 19C Dublin was in Rita’s DNA. The establishment of Lisa Lodge (1970), a home for young women on probation, was her first venture into this
field. When Rita and Teresa Van Dyk returned home to St Martin’s late one night and informed us that they had just delivered a baby who refused to wait till they could get her young mum to the Base, we knew that boarding school supervision and secondary teaching was not the challenge that Rita sought. Rita was more at home helping to establish havens like Lisa Lodge Hostel and Hayeslee House and services such as Grow and Ballarat Lifeline. While she was immensely proud of teaching so many women to sew and to type, her life as an educator was too far from the edge for Rita.
From 1973 until early 1988, Rita’s ministry base was the Ballarat Diocesan Family Service. She combined work with on-going study for a BA in Social Work at the University of Ballarat. She took time out in 1984 to complete an MA in Community Development at Regis College in Denver Colorado. On her return to Australia, Rita was asked to head up the Diocesan Family Service. She faced the never-ending challenges of this work with competence and compassion, a powerful combination in any leader. Sharing community with Rita at this time was both a joy and an inspiration. Our lives in Howard Street, Ballarat North, were full of surprises.
May to November 1988 took Rita to Kew where she filled in as Assistant Coordinator at the Good Shepherd Day Centre. She then had the opportunity to pursue one of her long-held dreams, namely to work as a volunteer at the Jean Vanier Centre in Canberra. This lasted a short eight months. The tragic death in a plane crash of Cairns Mercy Sr Nadia was the catalyst for Rita to move to Cairns in July 1989 as Diocesan Director of Centacare. Rita remained in that role for five life-giving years. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties [of the people of Cairns], especially those who were poor or in any way afflicted, these [became]
the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of [this grace-filled, mercy-filled follower] of Christ´ (Gaudium et Spes 1).
If Rita thought she was due for a break, it was not about to happen. In September 1994 she was elected for a five year term as Congregation Leader of the Ballarat East Sisters of Mercy. We were privileged to have her as our leader and grateful for the vision she brought to the role. The burgeoning Mercy Associate Movement was a special interest of Rita’s over these years and remained so until the day she died. She rests in the knowledge that Mercy Associates have taken a new path with renewed vigour under new leadership.
In the celebrations for the Centenary of Federation, Rita was recognised as one of the ordinary Australian women who had led extraordinary lives. Characteristically, she made nothing of this and few of her friends
were aware that her story was included in the exhibition in honour of Australia’s outstanding women.
Further public recognition was to follow in the form of an honorary doctorate from the University of Ballarat and a Victorian Government Council on the Ageing Achievement Award.
Rita’s 20th century contribution to the Australia we want and the planet we want is exceeded only by her more recent 21st century activities. The turn of the millennium marked for Rita the 73rd year of her life and the beginning of sixteen years of free-wheeling. There was no stopping her. Members of countless groups can witness to her struggle for justice: her West Papuan and Sudanese friends; the former Ballarat Refugee Support Group; ACU Social Concerns Committee; Ballarat AETA; Moving Towards Justice; Ballarat Multicultural Centre; the Shower Bus supporters; the Faith Commitment and Ecotheology Class; the local Mercy International Reflection Group with its focus on the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor; and above all, her Mercy Sisters and her family for whom she was both friend and inspiration.
Rita, to know the mind of God was quite a motto-more aspirational than most of us would dare to articulate.
It was your motto. It was your constant search. In so many ways, you revealed the ways of God to us and to
all who knew you. In that, you surely brought us closer to the mind of the God with whom you were fully
united on the Feast of All Saints. You completed the work you were given to do with unparalleled vibrancy.
You never spared yourself in the effort. Rest well from your labours! Yours was a graced and gracious life.
Your family, your sisters and your friends declare you blessed!
Sr. Rita died on Tuesday 1st November 2016. She was 88.
Thank you to Sr. Veronica Lawson for these words of Remembrance.
Rita is buried at the Ballarat New Cemetery in Roman Catholic C Row 1 Grave 35