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Courage and Hope


By: Michael Aun


St. Rita was known as the saint of impossible dreams, the saint of courage, bravery, valor and mettle.  Rita Madden Thiel was not named after St. Rita, but she surely could have. She had all the attributes.

I watched with sadness as she buried two children and a grandchild. No parent or grandparent should ever have to inter their progeny. She dealt with it all with a stiff upper lip, the same way the prodigious women of the Greatest Generation always faced tragedy, calamity, misfortune and heartbreak.

For over two years, I was a witness to her hands-on, around-the-clock care to comfort a daughter Julie, who fought and lost a long spirited battle with cancer at the age of 40. She was a child who had never smoked or drank and in fact was an iron-man triathlete with multiple college degrees. Such a waste. The God we worship has a plan, so the faith teaches us.

Life is full of catastrophes, turmoil, confusion and chaos. It seemed like Rita had more than her fair share. On many occasions she herself dauntlessly fought what seemed to be a life-long, recurring battle with cancer, only to fall prey to its cruel grip in the end at the age of 90.

I witnessed the valor and fearlessness it took to literally transplant the fibula from her leg into a bone that became part of her new jaw. They actually removed half her face so that she might renew her struggle with the deadly and noxious disease of cancer. 

Rita never lost hope. She was a beacon of inspiration to everyone who knew her. And… like St. Rita herself, she never sensed that anything was impossible. It was what made her life imaginable and full of promise.

Rita Thiel gave birth to eight children, a matriarch of a typical Catholic family. She was a Registered Nurse by profession and managed a career between pregnancies and tragedies. She fought and won a battle with breast cancer, losing the precious fragment that nourishes life to her offspring. But courage prevailed.

Sorrow, despair, anguish, grief, pain, misery, suffering, mourning, bereavement were all words that lament her memory. Indeed like my own mother, she would say… “Sing no sad songs for me.”

She beheld more grief in her life than one person should endure. She labored in the vineyards of her dying Catholic community, giving them the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of Holy Communion to those saying goodbye to this world.

She was what I often called a lionhearted “shero,” dauntless and unafraid of dying or, more importantly, of living. She fought a noble and honorable battle with all of life’s hurdles, politely and privately taking on many without the knowledge of even her immediate family. She bore the burden of the virtuous fray herself, never taxing or imposing her needs on her those around her.

In many ways, she symbolized hope and brought out the best in others. Hope is about confidence and optimism. Hopefulness trumps hopelessness especially in the eye of the beholder. She only saw the possibilities, never the likelihood or risk of defeat. Her hope infused confidence, optimism and faith in others.

Rita Madden met the love of her life, Paul Thiel, when she was a nursing student in Illinois. They married some 65 years ago and became a fountain of life to eight children, 12 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren. Her progeny would be blessed if they inherited a bit of her courage, hope, mettle and a ruggedness that transcends generations.

For Rita Marie Thiel, every day was a day well lived and every tomorrow a dream of hope. She was always faithful in small things for she found in them strength and hope. Above all, she never gave up. For her, hope was a “verb” with the sleeves rolled up!

Her only fears in life were eclipsed by her bravery and love of her family. She found her happiness in her independence and freedom, but her strength was in her courage. Would that all our lives be so fertile. She was my mother-in-law.

Michael Aun, CSP®, CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame® is the co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul – Living the Catholic Faith