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Sister Rita Foster, who served the poor and protested violence, dies at 89

22 May 2022

Sister Rita Foster was a Catholic nun who practiced tai chi chih daily, always stopped to remove dead leaves from trees and was arrested for protests many times.

Her first arrest happened in November 1982, when she joined 35 others protesting the manufacturing of weapons at the south Minneapolis headquarters of Honeywell. In lengthy written testimony five years later, Foster explained the reasoning behind her acts of civil disobedience: “I believe that the ideal of justice is being violated by laws that allow continued military buildup at the expense of the poor at home and abroad.”

“She never took her commitments lightly. Everything she did, she studied deeply — always seeking the proper response, the right answer,” Deanna Abbott-Foster said of her sister, who died April 12 at age 89.

As the oldest of seven children growing up in Minneapolis, Foster developed her sense of conscientiousness at a young age. At 19, she joined the congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and math, and started teaching in Catholic schools. Then superiors asked her to teach college physics, so Foster earned her master’s. But she was never quite satisfied teaching, said Sister Mary Ellen Foster, Rita’s biological sister who also entered the convent.

So eventually Foster went to San Francisco for another master’s — this one in theology — before moving to North Dakota to work in a parish and a university Newman Center. One summer in the late 1970s, a nun from Minneapolis visited Fargo to recruit help for St. Joseph’s House, a new women’s shelter in the city’s Phillips neighborhood and part of the Catholic Worker movement.

Foster returned to her hometown to begin work with the homeless population. She lived in the shelter for a while before moving to a nearby house with Sister Char Madigan, one of the shelter’s founders, to make way for more guests. An avid walker, Foster quickly got to know all her neighbors.

“People were always coming to see Rita,” Madigan said. “She didn’t preach to them. She listened.”

In 1981, Foster helped start Ascension Place, transforming a former convent in north Minneapolis into another women’s shelter. It was around this time that she became more involved in protesting Honeywell, citing a realization that the communities she served were receiving less and less assistance for food and shelter as an increasing amount of financial resources were dedicated to national security.

“She was just so brilliant that she figured out what was wrong, and she studied it,” Madigan said.

Foster loved to travel, and she wrote that her resistance work was inspired in part by trips to Washington, D.C., and Central America. Later in life, while on sabbatical in South Carolina, Foster discovered and developed a passion for healing touch therapy, massage and tai chi chih, which she taught throughout the Twin Cities.

“I always think of her as a seeker of peace,” Mary Ellen Foster said. “There was peace that she wanted for the world and for her community and all that. But as she grew older, I think she really was seeking peace for herself as well.”

Along with Mary Ellen, Foster is survived by her sisters Shirley Rian, Susan Pumarlo, Jennifer Taylor and Deanna Abbott-Foster, and her brother, Charles Foster. Services have been held.

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