Sister Rita Schwarzenberger is no stranger to Kansas, despite having spent most of the past 46 years in Nigeria. Born third of eight children to Michael and Ida Schwarzenberger in Collyer, Schwarzenberger joined the Dominican Sisters of Peace in 1960.
After working in pastoral ministries in the Catholic Dioceses of Dodge City, Salina and Wichita, and teaching school in Pueblo, Colo., Schwarzenberger traveled to Nigeria for the first time in 1975.
Schwarzenberger manages Hope for the Village Child Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that assists rural communities in Kaduna State in north-central Nigeria. Her team runs a health center that focuses on mothers and children, treating conditions such as tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid and HIV/AIDS. They also treat children who are malnourished and who have rickets.
The foundation team provides education and literacy materials to children and schools. Farmers learn sustainable farming practices and receive assistance with agriculture loans. Ensuring local communities have access to clean water is an important part of the program as well.
More than 20 years ago, a WaKeeney widow’s donation in memory of her husband funded the first water well the organization provided. Today, the program has built approximately 400 wells in cooperation with local villages.
Sustaining local communities
Schwarzenberger says the work they do is with, in and for the local communities. Sustainability remains a key focus for the team because of the level of poverty in the region she serves. She relies on and is grateful for the generous support that her family, friends and others provide.
Schwarzenberger’s work comes with challenges. One occurred in 2016, when two visitors came to Schwarzenberger’s compound in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the visitors were not aware of the compound’s two guard dogs.
While trying to wrangle the dogs to protect the visitors, Schwarzenberger was pushed to the ground and sustained what she thought were only minor injuries. Three days later, she learned she had broken her wrists. In England, doctors put her wrists in casts and Schwarzenberger flew home to Kansas.
After her arrival in Great Bend, Randall K. Hildebrand, MD, examined Schwarzenberger’s wrists. It was quickly determined they would not heal properly on their own, so Hildebrand performed surgery on her wrists.
Schwarzenberger says during this challenging time, she learned a lot about herself and others.
She was dependent on others to help her with basic care, including feeding her. Through this experience, she says she learned how she might be able to care for others in similar circumstances if she had the opportunity.
Today, when she shares this story, Schwarzenberger happily shows her wrists and says that no one can tell she had surgery.
After a fall in 2020, Schwarzenberger required surgery to repair a crack in her femur. She was unable to travel for medical care due to COVID-19 and had surgery in Nigeria. After her surgery, she spent 30 days in traction.
This experience reminded her of the generosity of the human spirit and caring nature of others, as she was again unable to care for herself.
Complications arose from the surgery performed in Nigeria, so Schwarzenberger returned to Kansas for treatment and again chose Dr. Hildebrand for her care. On Aug. 10, Schwarzenberger’s care team removed the metal from the surgery conducted in Nigeria and completed a hip replacement.
When reflecting on the care she received from Dr. Hildebrand and the team at The University of Kansas Health System Great Bend Campus, Schwarzenberger says everyone has been so kind, professional, and helpful. She remains grateful for the exceptional care she has received.
Central Kansas Orthopedic Group joined The University of Kansas Health System August 30.
“We were happy and honored to be able to participate in the care of Sister Rita as she continues her legacy of working on the front line at the health center in Nigeria,” says Dr. Hildebrand. The team looks forward to offering the best possible orthopedic care for more people.
Schwarzenberger hopes to begin her two-day trip back to Nigeria on Oct. 1. When asked about her return trip to Africa, she says with a true servant heart that she “wants to continue to be helpful while (she) can.”
To learn more about Schwarzenberger’s work with Dominican Sisters of Peace, visit https://oppeace.org.