Campaigning in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for president in 1980, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy celebrated Palm Sunday at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald photo by James Pearson)

Thanks to the dedication of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi known for compassion and breakthroughs in the care of the developmentally disabled through their work at Cardinal Stritch University, the Kennedys felt comfortable trusting Rosemary to their care.

Rosemary’s progress with the sisters did not go unnoticed by siblings Ted and Eunice, who had a profound connection with Rosemary, said Andrea Speth, vice president of marketing and community relations at St. Coletta.

Rosemary’s progress with the sisters at St. Coletta inspired Eunice to become an activist in the field of mental retardation. She later founded the Special Olympics.

“Rosemary and John F. Kennedy were Ted’s godmother and godfather and they shared a love for music and parties,” said Speth. “Eunice and Rosemary shared a profound sisterly connection.”

Ted and Eunice were with Rosemary when she died, and the senator’s Irish demeanor during that time is etched in the memories of those who witnessed her death.

“When Rosemary passed away, Ted broke out in a spontaneous singing of Irish tunes including ‘Sweet Rosie O’Grady,’” said Speth. “It was a fun moment and one that underscored his charisma.”

St. Coletta staff members recalled numerous times, including the period surrounding Rosemary’s death, that the family prayed in the chapel at the Jefferson home, as well as at the Milwaukee-based motherhouse.

“We know it was their strong faith that helped them endure all of the family tragedies,” said Speth.

For more than 105 years, St. Coletta has been advocating for the rights of those with disabilities to be integrated and included as full citizens of the United States and Kennedy created and influenced health care and civil rights legislation to have an impact upon the disabled throughout the world.

The Kennedy legacy is responsible for the Joseph P. Kennedy School at St. Coletta of Illinois and the family was involved in the creation of St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, Milwaukee. They were involved in the expansion of St. Coletta of Jefferson to Massachusetts and the establishment of St. Coletta and Cardinal Cushing Schools of Massachusetts.

Cardinals remember senator

“For nearly half a century, Sen. Kennedy was often a champion for the poor, the less fortunate and those
seeking a better life. Across Massachusetts and the nation, his legacy will be carried on through the lives of those he served.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley,
Archbishop of Boston.

“His deep and personal commitment to causes affecting the poor and needy among us flowed from his deep Catholic faith, and the life and outreach of Jesus Christ. Over the years, however, I was never able to bring him to promote fundamental rights for one important group in
our society – the unborn.
But he did struggle with this aspect of his Catholic faith, and I was hopeful that at some point he would see that all of his work for the most needy had to begin with a commitment to every person – born and unborn.”
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony,
Archbishop of Los Angeles

“His roar and his zeal for what he believed made a difference in our nation’s life. Sometimes, we who were his friends and had affection for him would get mad at him when he roared at what we believed was the wrong side of an issue, but we always knew and were always touched by his passion for the underdog, for the rights of working people, for better education and for adequate health care for every American. His legacy will surely place him among the dozen or so greats in the history of the Senate of the United States.”
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick,
retired Archbishop
of Washington, D.C.

Speth noted that Rosemary enjoyed frequent visits by her family, and was often included in family vacations to Hyannis Port or trips to Florida.

“There is a common misconception that she was brought to Jefferson and left,” she said. “But the truth is she was always an active member of the Kennedy family with lots of connections not only to her siblings but also to nieces and nephews and extended family.”

Local community members were often surprised to see Ted, Eunice or Rose pop up at restaurants or shops in the Jefferson area. While the family drew attention wherever they went, they blended into the tiny farm community and connected with the local residents.

“For St. Coletta, we feel privileged to have been connected to the family through our support of Rosemary,” said Speth. “In particular, we feel we had a bird’s eye view to see how they turned their inspiration and love for Rosemary into action through their public service and work to advocate for persons with disabilities to be included in all aspects of life.”

While Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon didn’t have a personal relationship with the late senator, she has fond memories of more than 50 years in partnership with him and his family.

“We appreciated being able to work with them because they were concerned that all children and all people have a right to thrive and grow no matter their abilities,” she said. “They helped provide in a financial way, and in a very caring, loving and faith-filled way to so many residents of the St. Coletta family.” Including Rosemary in congregational gatherings with the sisters and several trips to their motherhouse is a memory Sr. Florence won’t forget.

“She was always surrounded by love and by people who accepted her totally,” she said. “Not only is she missed, but Teddy will be missed because he worked with us to make life better for God’s most vulnerable people.”

St. Coletta will honor the family legacy and their dedication to the developmentally disabled by continuing its mission of supporting people with disabilities to be involved in all aspects of life and be seen as full citizens.

“This is very much consistent with both Ted and Eunice’s public service and legacy,” said Speth. “Ted’s support for civil rights and the ADA has touched each and every person we support.”