October 24, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – Sister Rose Ann Schlitt has spent 50 of her 65 years of religious life as a missioner, serving in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and in six other countries: the Dominican Republic, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Italy, and the Philippines.
A native of Vero Beach, Florida, Sister Rose Ann entered the Congregation in 1954 after being taught by Adrian Dominican Sisters in elementary and high school. “I felt called to that way of life,” she said. But she said she didn’t enter the Congregation planning to be a missioner, “not even thinking to be a teacher.”
Sister Rose Ann’s first assignment took her to Puerto Rico to teach in Guayama. She was then sent to teach in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. After teaching for two years in the United States – in Georgia and Florida – Sister Rose Ann returned to the Dominican Republic in 1966 to teach at Colegio Santo Domingo, sponsored by the Congregation and again in Santo Domingo and Haina in subsequent years.
From then on, Sister Rose Ann continued to serve in foreign lands: Peru from 1969 to 1978 and in Nicaragua, interspersed with ministries in Congregational leadership: on the General Council from 1982 to 1986 and as Chapter Prioress of the Rosa de Lima Mission Chapter, which included the Congregation’s Sisters serving overseas. In subsequent years, she served in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 2003 to 2005; Santa Sabina, Rome, to coordinate the mission work of Dominican Volunteers International, 2005 to 2010; and in San Fernando, Pampanga, the Philippines, to accompany the Sisters of the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of Remedies as they prepared for their merger with the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Her work as a missioner included education and pastoral ministry, as well as less formal roles. “I was living among the people and helping them to accomplish what they needed to accomplish,” she said. “I’ve taught women income-generating skills that they needed to support their families.” In Nicaragua, this involved helping the women to develop a sewing cooperative.
She has also helped people to build their own faith through Basic Christian Communities, which she coordinated in Peru. “We interpreted Scripture together,” she recalled. “We looked at our reality and response together. That model was a real joy for me.”
Sister Rose Ann clarified that, over the years, she has come to see herself as a missioner rather than a missionary. “Missionary has been updated to be more inclusive of all kinds of presence” rather than the traditional role of missionaries as evangelists. “I have learned to be with the people in very different ways for the purpose of befriending them, of living among them, of forming solidarity – forming a “we” – and not necessarily doing what I knew how to do, but what they needed me to do,” Sister Rose Ann said.
Being a missioner “is very different from one who goes as an expert and teaches from expertise,” Sister Rose Ann explained. “It’s going out of your own poverty really, but open to what is there, who is there.”
Sister Rose Ann said being a missioner has been “a call within a call. Within the call to be in religious life and mission, the second call came to be in mission more closely with the poor and live as they lived – coming down from status, letting go of recognition. It was like going down the ladder to be free, to be with others.”
“You come as a stranger and a foreigner and you have to get beyond that and reach out in a human and friendly way,” she explained. “You have to befriend them, and then anything can happen.” Missioners also have to learn the language of the people and let go of a sense of control.
Another challenge, Sister Rose Ann said, is adjusting to a new culture and customs, even to different foods. “There are some cultural differences that you don’t understand right away, or maybe you never understand,” she said. The key is to be open and suspend judgment.
Finally, Sister Rose Ann said, missioners face the challenge of leaving the people they have come to love. “It’s always a challenge to love people and then leave, but that’s a part of it, because if you love enough you don’t just stay,” she said.
Sister Rose Ann found joy in the people she came to know in her missions, but also in her work with Dominican Volunteers International. “That was a real joy, to be at Santa Sabina [in Rome], to live in an inter-Dominican community of Sisters and to prepare lay people from different parts of the world – to help them prepare, look at their objectives, look at missionary attitudes, and help them prepare for their service.”
In working with the Dominican Volunteers, Sister Rose Ann looked for certain qualities that point to those who are well matched to life as a missioner. She looked for “someone who knows it’s not going to be about them – a certain simplicity and sensitivity to the other.” She saw a good disposition in most volunteers. “None of them really were sent and thought they were going to be the experts,” she said. “All of them felt they had a lot to learn.”
Sister Rose Ann also offers this wise counsel on serving in the missions, attributed to Lao Tsu, a Chinese philosopher who founded the school of Taoism in the sixth century before Christ:
“Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them. Start with what they know, build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
Feature photo (top): Sister Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, introduces herself to neighbors in Barrio Acahualinca, Managua, Nicaragua Circa 1979.