Sister Donna Schmitt
Who can forget Sr. Donna Schmitt’s story about connecting with the Sisters of Humility? For a freshman English assignment, she had written business letters to four religious communities asking for information. Within a short time, she had heard from three, but not from the Sisters of Humility. One day, when she was a senior at St. Joseph Academy, then Sr. Mary Florence called and asked if she were still interested in the Sisters of Humility? It seems her letter had recently been found, hidden behind a drawer that was being cleaned out. Fortunately, in the meantime, Donna had learned about the Humilities from classmates at St. Joe’s and, “Yes”, she was interested. And, as they say, “The rest is history….”
Donna Jean Schmitt was born on January 11, 1929 in Des Moines to Paul and Edna Seuferer Schmitt. She had reached 90 years last January. She was the first in a family of thirteen children. Of the thirteen, four sisters and six brothers are deceased. Surviving sisters are Margaret Reilly and Pauline Cunningham.
Donna entered the Congregation on September 8, 1947, having graduated from St. Joseph Academy that spring. She received the habit and her name in religion, Sister Mary Angelita, the following summer. She was professed in 1950. She is the last of her “class” that had included Srs. Dolorosa Sallen, Camille Clark and Mary Lou Durbala. After Vatican II she resumed use of her baptismal name.
Sr. Donna completed an Associate degree from Ottumwa Heights College while in the novitiate and graduated from Marycrest College with a BA in elementary education and English in 1959. She took advantage of study grants from the National Science Foundation and received an MA in Science Teaching from Wisconsin State University in Superior in 1972. As part of that degree, she had spent a summer at Louisiana State University and A. & M. College, in Baton Rouge.
Sr. Donna taught in the elementary grades at Archbishop Dowling School in Minneapolis, Melrose Public school in Melrose, IA, St. Mary’s Schools in Ottumwa and Oskaloosa, and St. Henry’s in Marshalltown. At the latter two schools, she was also an administrator. In 1968, early in the period of experimentation following Vatican II, she went to St. Theresa School in Des Moines where she taught middle grades for 18 years. While there she received two prestigious awards from the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). In 1978 she received the Presidential award for Outstanding Service to Catholic Education and in 1982 she was one of 12 persons to receive the inaugural Sister Miriam Joseph Farrell award for Outstanding Catholic School Teacher in the Midwest region. Her name was submitted by the Des Moines Diocese “because of her years of service and dedication to education as evidenced in her teaching, committee work, and hours given to science in-service programs for diocesan teachers.”
In 1986 the community invited her to accept a full-time position as Coordinator of the Seeds of Hope volunteer program. It was described as a “people-helping-people” endeavor to enable lay people, associates and sisters, too, to work hand-in-hand with members of the community wherever they were. They were to provide hope to the disillusioned and poor and to work towards peace and justice in the world. Her practice was to go to the proposed site for a “hands-on” visit to know both the community and work to be done there, as well as living arrangements.
While continuing with the volunteer program, Sr. Donna served the community for several years as Coordinator of Humility of Mary Center. She was a member of the Spirit and Goals committee and a contact sister for associates.
In 1991 Sr. Donna moved back to Des Moines and became Assistant Housing Coordinator and Apartment Manager for Anawim Housing, Inc. that assisted homeless individuals and families. She also taught art to children and adults in the basement of the apartment building where she lived.
Sr. Donna joined Sisters JoAnne and Cathy Talarico in going to the women’s prison in Mitchellville, Iowa, every month for many years. Under the title “Bible Study -- Bits and Pieces”, she and Sr. Cathy were able to incorporate music, creative writing and art with Scripture and prayer in a sharing and fun environment. One woman remarked, “You don’t know what it means for volunteers to come – not judging, just caring. It’s easy to feel forgotten in here.” Later Sr. Donna was quoted, “These Thursdays have been uplifting experiences…Maybe, it is the joy of reading peace in faces as women begin to feel God’s love for them and their own worth.”
Sr. Donna was part of the experimental “New Hope Community” that included CHM sisters, a novice, associates and other lay women at various times over the years. Community members committed to specific goals of community living and hosted a Saturday morning Scripture study open to anyone. They engaged in a ministry of “presence” and action in the River Bend Neighborhood that included anything from serving early morning breakfast from the food truck to conducting orientations to the neighborhood for students from Mercy College medical programs prior to their volunteer or in-service placements. Other CHMs might join them as individual “guides” for “Busy Student Retreats” for these students.
Sister Donna displayed patience and kindness as she helped PATH clients with mental health issues find value in work experiences. One summer she obtained $500 from “Neighborhood Grants for Growth” to fund trash and litter pick-up along 6th Avenue. Wearing orange vests and tee shirts provided by the Neighborhood Association, with gloves, buckets and trash bags, and handy “grabbers”, adults and children picked up trash every Wednesday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. McDonald's provided drinks midway and at the end of the work period, and Anawim donated $100 for a party at the end of the summer. In addition to taking pride in the improved appearance of the area, volunteers learned about the importance and benefits of recycling.
The New Hope community hosted many sisters and other visitors and Sr. Donna was usually the one who prepared delicious meals, often on short notice. As the last to move out, she led the task of directing the contents of the two houses to other locations and purposes, before relocating to Humility of Mary Center in 2013.
After declining further treatment for breast cancer, Sr. Donna retired to Bishop Drumm Care Center in 2019. In the early morning of October 25, the aide sitting with her observed Sr. Donna quietly extend her arms and hands out in front of herself, and then draw them in, repeating three times, "Lord, take me." Sr. Donna then took a deep breath and peacefully died.
Tribute written by Sr. Mary Rehmann, CHM
Survivors include her sisters, Pauline Cunningham and Margaret (Jon) Rielly, many nieces, nephews and cousins as well as sisters and associates of her CHM religious community. She was preceded in death by her parents, sisters Victoria Schmitt, Constance Eliott, Mary Ann Dost and Yvonne Younger, brothers Gerald, Robert, Joseph, John, Richard and Thomas Schmitt.