Sister Rita Steinhagen, CSJ Print


You hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
So it is with everyone begotten of the Spirit.
John 3:8

Rita Steinhagen CSJSister Rita Steinhagen, CSJ, born January 21, 1928, was a quiet, introverted woman who was passionate about the poor, justice, and fishing.  From a totally unexpected call to the religious life as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet when she was 23 to being sentenced to prison on her seventieth birthday in 1997, Rita reached beyond herself in compassionate action.

See images of Rita at

She entered the convent in 1951 and made her first profession of vows in 1953. After earning her degree from the College of St. Catherine, she began her career as a medical technologist. But a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis when she was thirty-seven changed her life focus.

Unable to meet her demanding hospital schedule, she found her way to the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis where she began her ministry of service to the poor. She opened a free store where she attended to the physical and spiritual needs of many who were poor, homeless, lonely, and disturbed.  In 1971 after seeing the many runaways on the street, she established the Bridge, a shelter for runaway youth, which is still functioning in Minneapolis.

She helped establish the Stillwater House of Prayer. Inspired by Dorothy Day whom she had met, Sister Rita helped found the St. Joseph House which today continues to flourish and expand as Hope Community, a model development of inner city renewal in Minneapolis .

She then moved to El Paso , Texas to work with refugees at Annunciation House while learning Spanish.  Hearing the stories of those fleeing war in Nicaragua, Rita became a long-term volunteer with Witness for Peace, an organization that placed her in the war zones of Northern Nicaragua in hopes that the Contras wouldn?t shell where an American was present. After eight months of living in the war-torn country, she returned to Minneapolis to serve for seven years as a volunteer at the Center for Victims of Torture.

As a result of her contact with people from Central America and with victims of torture, she became involved with the movement to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning , Georgia because of its training of Latin American military in counterinsurgency tactics.  In 1996 she was arrested for the first time for peaceful protesting, and in 1997 was again arrested and sentenced to a federal penitentiary in Pekin , Illinois . When asked what she got for her 70th birthday, Sister Steinhagen quipped, ?Six months!? 

Her time at the Federal Prison for Women in Pekin , Illinois led her to expanded views of peace and justice in a troubled world.  Many of the women in prison believed that she was sent there for their benefit.  One of them said, ?Sister Rita has a presence which is built on her long life of faith, and the inmates of all ages trust her.?  For more about Rita's time in prison, click here.

Rita's bookAt the urgings of friends, Sister Rita published her memoir, Hooked by the Spirit: Journey of a Peaceful Activist, in 2005. Click here for ordering information.

She was recognized for her contributions to social justice by many whose lives she touched.  Her public honors include the Archbishop John Ireland Distinguished Service Award (1972 and 1998); the Alexandrine Medal awarded by the College of St. Catherine (1984); Marvelous Minnesota Women (1998); and the Witness for Peace Appreciation Award which was presented to the ?SOA twenty-five? (1998).

Sister Rita died peacefully on November 21, 2006 at Bethany Convent where she had spent the last few months of her life.  The visitation and funeral will be held at the Chapel of the Presentation of Our Lady, 1880 Randolph Avenue , St. Paul, Minnesota on Friday, November 24, 2006. The Visitation will be from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. with a prayer service of remembering at 5:30 p.m. The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 7:00 p.m.

Click here to download a prayer card that you can print.

Read Doug Grow's tribute to Rita in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Read the article about Rita in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Read an article in the City Pages, November, 1998 just after Rita got out of prison.