Tenacious teacher Sister Rita Claire Davis, SSMN, continues education ministry

North Texas Catholic
(Jul 8, 2024) Local

Sister Rita Claire with a student

Sister Rita Claire Davis, SSMN, embraces an ESL student as the class works on a computer assignment at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fort Worth on May 7, 2024. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Sister Rita Claire Davis, SSMN, is all smiles as she shows a visitor the rooms at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fort Worth where English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are wrapping up for the day and for the semester.

The 96-year-old has directed the ESL program there for more than a decade, organizing classes for up to 100 students, getting materials, and tracking enrollment and student progress.

Until getting her third bout of COVID in December, she taught a class, too, in addition to her administrative duties.

“After I got sick, the doctor said to dial back my activities, so I stopped teaching,” Sr. Rita Claire said.

Paul Park, a first-year ESL teacher, described the administrator as “a complete bundle of unstoppable energy.”

“I think about the effort it takes to organize this, organizing seven classes, getting the materials, and running it,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “To be 96 years old and doing that.”

Classes meet for three hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school year, taking breaks with school holidays and holy days. 

Spring semester had four levels of instruction, and Sr. Rita Claire said the year was a bit of an anomaly as they had more students in the middle levels than at the beginning level.

In one Level 2 class, students read paragraphs they wrote on the whiteboard, recounting what they did over Mother’s Day weekend.

Elaine Sluiter, now in her sixth year of teaching ESL, helps students add missing words and use the correct verb tense, all the while praising their efforts.

Sluiter said Sr. Rita Claire is “the heart of the program, and she’s always ready to help everyone.”

Jody Puente retired from teaching several years ago because of issues with mobility. She said Sr. Rita Claire encouraged her to come teach ESL and told her she would have help and mobility challenges wouldn’t be an obstacle.

Puente works with assistant teacher Idalia Zapata, who can write lessons on the whiteboard and move around the classroom when needed.

Every teacher works with an assistant teacher, and at least one of the pair speaks Spanish, Sr. Rita Claire said.

Puente said Sr. Rita Claire exudes love and inspiration. “She cares about her students, and she cares about her teachers.”

They take attendance and Sr. Rita Claire is quick to ask about missing students and follow up with them.

Zapata said, “She’s an inspiration. I wish I could be like that at her age and have that energy and strength.”

‘I want to do that someday’

Sr. Rita Claire joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur 77 years ago.

Her parents, neither of whom had more than a sixth-grade education, lived outside Dallas.

Sister Rita Claire with people
Sister Rita Claire Davis, SSMN, poses with some of the students and volunteer instructors in her ESL program at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Her mother converted to Catholicism because of the kindness of a Catholic neighbor who also was a young mother.

Sr. Rita Claire’s mother highly valued education and wanted to send her daughter to Catholic school.

After being turned down at Ursuline Academy because Sr. Rita Claire was too young, her mother approached St. Edwards Catholic School in Dallas.

They also said the 5-year-old girl was too young, but when Sr. Rita Claire wouldn’t stop crying because she desperately wanted to go to school, first-grade teacher

Sister Jeanne Marie relented and even agreed to take care of her after school until her father got off work.

Her tuition was paid in fresh eggs, the only way the family could afford it.

Sr. Rita Claire vividly remembers going to downtown Dallas with her mother one Christmas and seeing a nun followed by a group of little boys. When she asked her mother about it, her mother told her the boys were orphans, and the sisters took care of them.

“I thought, ‘I want to do that someday,’” she said.

She worked her way through Our Lady of Victory College in Fort Worth and grew to love the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who ran the school, even more.

“I just admired people who were so giving, and I wanted to be like them,” she said.

Changing lives through ESL

After college, she taught science and math at Bishop Dunne High School in Dallas and at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth after it opened.

She also spent time in predominantly black parishes in South Carolina, helping people who were impoverished and in need.

She always wanted to go on missions to Africa and went to Canada for a while to learn French but decided, “I was too old to pick it up.”

After getting transferred back to the Diocese of Fort Worth, she began working at Santa Rosa Parish in Knox City and St. Joseph Parish in Rhineland.

Santa Rosa had a largely Hispanic congregation, and she and another sister started teaching English in 1986. Many new immigrants were in the area, and learning English helped them settle into their communities, find jobs, and interact with schools.

Then she worked at parishes in Vernon, Quanah, and Crowell, continuing to teach ESL.

In 2008, she had another transfer and began teaching ESL in Mansfield where they had big classes. After getting transferred to Fort Worth in 2013, she wanted to start an ESL program and found a willing parish partner in Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Most of her teachers are retired, and both they and the students enjoy the classes.

“Some of the teachers say, ‘There’s something going on here, do you experience it?’” Sr. Rita Claire said. “We get so close to students, and it becomes a community. It’s something life-giving to each group.”

Sr. Rita Claire wants others to find that special joy of the Lord and issues a challenge: “Would you like to do something to help change people’s lives? You can by volunteering here.”

Sister Rita Claire Davis, SSMN, Sister of St. Mary of Namur, ESL, trending-english