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Sister Rita Schwarzenberger, OP, awarded papal honor

Editor’s Note: The following is reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Reporter. It is part of the Global Sisters Report Project.

NIGERIA – Collyer, Kansas native Sister Rita Schwarzenberger of the Dominican Sisters of Peace was awarded one the highest papal honors on Sept. 28 at St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral in Kaduna, Nigeria.

Sister Rita was presented the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For Church and Pope) medal for nearly a half-century of dedicated work as a missionary in the African nation. The Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award is conferred for distinguished service to the Catholic Church by lay people and clergy.

Sister Rita spent years teaching, after which she worked in the Church’s provincial office for justice development and peace. At present, she is Director of Hope for the Village Child Foundation, a non-governmental organization working with marginalized rural poor. She also serves as director for the Archdiocese of Kaduna Pastoral Plan.

Sister Rita currently lives in Kaduna state, north-central Nigeria, advancing catechetical teachings and working with local communities and individuals to promote peace.

Like most troubled northern states in the country, Kaduna has seen its own fair share of religious violence. Ethnic tensions and growing attacks by armed bandits, who target people for kidnapping and ransom, in addition to widespread poverty among the people, have exacerbated the situation.

In March, gunmen attacked a rural Christian settlement, killing 17 people. Four days later, 10 Christians were killed, heightening tensions in the region.

Sister Rita works on a project called “Protecting our Communities Initiative,” which is aimed at addressing lingering conflicts in local communities through sustained community-led approaches.

According to its website, the project is based on the idea of the role community members, women and youth can play in dissuading conflicts through nonviolent means.

“One of the things we do is to get communities to set up early warning response systems,” she said. “We have gotten involved to work for peace in communities such as improving early warning and response systems.”

Funded by the Karuna Center for Peace Building, a Massachusetts-based organization working to empower people divided to create sustainable peace, the project is implemented in partnership with the Neem Foundation, a crisis response organization.

According to its website, the Neem Foundation’s mission is to promote the protection of locals and communities living in areas affected by conflicts, violence and fragility.

Sister Rita and her team from the Neem Foundation engage community leaders and advocacy groups to discuss peace initiatives that help prepare residents on how to detect and respond to conflicts and violence.

“You know little things can blow up overnight,” she said. “You have the issue of religion in communities so things can escalate very easily. There is also a high level of tribalism.”

As a pilot program, Sister Rita and the team at Neem Foundation worked with six communities and two local government areas in the region affected by conflicts and violent attacks by bandits. The team set up local committees in rural communities for early warning and response.

The goal for the pilot program, Sister Rita said, is to see what was working and what was not.

“This really helped because people found out that cattle rustling, for example, ended because as soon as someone sees there is a chance of violence, they would notify the response team who will take action,” she said.

Sister Rita is all too familiar with violence in the state and said working with the locals is the best way to deal with violent escalations when they happen.

The team also trained locals in dialogue and psychosocial approaches to conflict response, resolution and de-escalation.

“It’s a whole integrated program and has been widely successful,” she said. “We know the training has been effective in these communities and we are hoping to expand it to other communities.”

Sister Rita said they work with other partners such as government-instituted peace commissions or global peace foundations who are passionate and committed to promoting peace in local communities.

To reach local communities, Sister Rita and her team do a radio program which she said has been very successful.

The idea, she said, is to reach the people in the remote areas so they can spread the word of countering conflicts and promoting peace while receiving feedback for future actions.

Radio is a powerful tool for communication in northern Nigeria. Most households have a radio which they use to listen to news and education programs in Hausa, the local language of the region.

During the program, Sister Rita and her team invite people from the rural villages to participate.

She said they normally discuss the value of dialogue or how peace can be promoted between local farmers and herders. At other times, they discuss women and their basic rights.

“It depends on the issue at the time,” she said. “The idea of the program is that people themselves have to take the initiative for peace in their communities. They have to come up with a solution. The team only trains and facilitates them to be able to do that.”

Running a local nonprofit
Sister Rita has been running Hope for the Village Child Foundation, a local nonprofit organization in Kaduna since
January 2003.

The nonprofit, which has a staff base of 32, works with people in rural communities in the areas of health, clean water, education, sustainable agriculture and outreach programs.

“Our basic goal is to help the people to become self-reliant, independent, and to know their own dignity,” she said.

The organization’s primary focus is on children and women’s development through empowerment programs.

“We believe that if you can’t help the family, then you can’t help the child,” said Sister Rita, who runs a special program for children with disabilities or diseases such as rickets.

The organization has a clinic inside their premises. The children are routinely scheduled for corrective surgeries at orthopedic hospitals and provided with after care treatments for their recovery.

Last year, more than 2,000 children were enrolled for rickets treatment.

Routinely, the organization plans an outreach program in the rural areas to investigate tropical illnesses, incidents of malaria, and genotyping to prevent sickle cell disease.

During the outreach programs, the team runs tests and returns with blood samples for use in their lab in the city. On each visit, for example, the team returns with 200 to 500 samples.

“The stress is on malaria because it is very high in this area,” Sister Rita said. “Our staff is well trained. We have nurses, and midwives and our laboratory technician is fantastic.”

Sister Rita said that clean water is a basic essential for local communities in the area who use it for their homes. Since 1998, through the help of donors and individuals in the U.S, the organization has provided more than 400 wells in different communities.

Sister Rita doesn’t work alone. Sister Juliana Ekwoanya, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, moved to Kaduna in 2019 from Gusau to work with Sister Rita at the organization. She has been working at the nonprofit for the last four years.

Before the bandits’ attack became too intense, the organization ran mobile clinics for rural communities. Sister Juliana, a nurse-midwife and head of the health program, said this has been put on hold for security reasons and currently operates limited services.

“Before we received patients at any hour of the day but this has changed,” said Sister Juliana, who added that there is flexibility for pregnant women and those with urgent health emergencies.

Sister Rita said the program also teaches people how to use sustainable environment-friendly methods of farming to increase crop yield and food production which helps to reduce poverty.

“Like the pope said in his encyclical, this is about the poor and about the earth,” she said.

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