August, 2016 – Sister Rita Jo Hancsak (formerly S. Mary Dorothy)

(Sister Rita Jo’s story has been reproduced from her autobiography written in 2008 and a video interview done by a niece of Pat McKim, SCNA, given in July, 2013. Consolidation of the two sources was done by Mary Gene Frank, SCNA August, 2016)

It is so nice to say that after four boys, the Hanscak family was blessed with a baby girl whom the mother named Rita JoAnn, there followed five more boys and two girls. It certainly was a large and loving family into which Rita Jo was born.

Her father, Michael Hancsak, was an Industrial engineer for US Steel. He came to the United States at the age of seven and lived with his brother. He attended grade school followed by engineering training. Rita Jo recalls, “His traits were terrific! Fatherly interest was shown to each child in the family which was twelve of us-nine boys and three girls. With nine boys he just could not have helped but have baseball as his special sport.”

The children were: Joseph, Michael, Albert, Edward, Augustin, Charles, Richard, Raymond, Cyril, Rita Jo, Dorothy, and Alma. (They are named as Sister remembered them not necessarily in birth order.)

Rita Jo’s mother, Anne, was born in Youngstown, Ohio of German Jewish descent. Anne attended grade and high schools taught by the Seton Hill Sisters of Charity. As a child, her mother had studied piano and started teaching each of her twelve children the piano. She was also very talented in singing and served as a teacher’s aide for a few years. Anne Fenner Hanscak made sure all her children received a good education. Rita could see that her father and mother had a strong and loving relationship. Rita Jo says, “Both parents made sure that each of us was well taken care of from every angle.”

Family photo February 1959 – Back Row L to R: Cyril, Richard, Charles, Father Gus, Edward, Albert, Ray, Michael – Front Row L to R: Dorothy, Sister Rita Jo, Mom, Dad, Joseph, and Alma

As for Rita Jo’s religious vocation, her mother supported her wish to become a nun. Her father was not in favor of it, but left it up to Rita Jo. Rita Jo’s mother wanted the vocation to be with the Seton Hill Charity Sisters, but Sister Vincent O’Neill, VSC persuaded her otherwise. Rita Jo attended Vincentian Academy from the eighth grade and entered the VSCs in 1936. She found her novitiate years enjoyable. The Novice Mistress was Sister M Bernadette Fialko and Rita Jo says, “She tried her very best with us throughout those six years. The experience was new and different, but we progressed.”

Sister Mary Dorothy was Rita Jo’s professed name. She was in educational ministry for twenty-six years in Pennsylvania. Her first year of teaching was grades 1, 2, and 3 in Brownsville, PA. Sister Benedict Lebovsky was the principal and house superior. Rita Jo had come to the Vincentian Sisters of Charity with skill and mastery on the piano. Sister Benedict recognized this gift and guided her toward using this talent and transitioning to playing the organ. The following year she was assigned to Pierce City, Missouri where she taught grades 1, 2, 3, and 4. Her mother was not pleased with the Rita Jo’s change to Missouri. She was an experienced teacher’s aide who knew all about life in the classroom. Not only was S Rita Jo to be further away from her family, she was to be given more responsibility. Sister Rita Jo recalls her mother saying to her, “When you call me next year, I imagine you will be telling me that you are teaching the whole school.”

From her autobiography written in 2008, she tells us “Sixty-three years later, I continue serving in the capacity as an organist. Teaching and playing the organ became my life of service. After twenty-seven years in the United States. I continued this ministry, serving the next thirty years in Canada. For twelve of those years, I served as a music supervisor. I have a wealth of wonderful memories from my time there and much to be thankful for.”

During her time in Canada, S Rita Jo was asked if she could teach other musical instruments. Of course, she could. She had experience from her days in the Sister’s Orchestra in Pittsburgh. She had learned to play trumpet, trombone, piano, and organ.

The school in Canada bought the instruments and the band was born. The children, all boys, became quite proficient and the idea of performing in an upcoming parade was suggested. The parade would be the first event of this kind and all arrangements were made. The band was not marching but playing on a flatbed pulled by a tractor. The day came and all the children and parents were expected to be on site and ready for the parade to begin. Everyone was there except, one of the most important members: the drummer. Sister Rita Jo tried to determine the reason he was not there, and although the children knew the reason they were reluctant to tell. Her words describe the solution, “We had no alternative; I had to take the initiative. I took the place of the missing drummer, but everyone recognized me. This unusual sight brought smiles and laughs from all and became a lasting and pleasant memory to all who participated.” The band did quite well without their director and the “new drummer.”

It was determined later that the “drummer” was playing ball and his mother was unaware of the big parade debut. He was never allowed to play in this school band again.

After many years Sister Rita Jo expressed to her “boss”, the Superintendent of Schools, that she felt it was time for her to retire. The position of music supervisor entailed a lot of traveling in the Niagara Falls area. There were twenty eight schools to visit. The weather in that area was very treacherous. Sister Rita Jo said, “It was as if everything was ice. It just became too much, too much.”

The “boss” said she was too young to retire and he had no one to replace her. Sister Rita Jo had not revealed her age and had quite the surprise for the “boss”. In Canada the mandatory retirement age was sixty years of age. Sister Rita Jo told her boss, “You better sit down.” Her age was actually sixty-five years. The “boss” could not believe it. Sister had made her case and she retired after thirty years as music teacher and twelve of those years as music supervisor.

At the time of the video interview, Sister Rita Jo would be celebrating her 75th year of profession. She missed the other ten members of her novitiate class (As she is the surviving member.) When reflecting on the past and future, these were her words: “I am satisfied and have few regrets with the journey of my life. I recognize the many changes that have happened throughout the various stages. I believe, I hope, and I pray that future changes are for my personal good, the good of the Community, the Church and the World. My life as a member of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity has meant everything to me. Every phase of my life was planned and taken care of by God’s blessing and action in my life. I trust God’s presence and promise for whatever the future may bring.”

(Sister Rita Jo in her mind, believes that her mother, father and siblings are still at the family home. Because these family members are so real to S. Rita Jo it almost made me a believer. The peace and joy in her eyes are very convincing.

Sister Rita Jo was so surprised that I knew so much about her life, but nodded her approval of the memories recorded here.)