In memory of Rita Cunningham, Rose of Birthright

March 2010
Pittsburgh Catholic
By Paula A. Smith, former Birthright Director

On the morning of March 5, Rita Cunningham died at home with her husband, Jim, beside her as he has been for 61 years. A devoted wife, mother of 10, grandmother of 19 and great-grandmother of four, one might say 86-year-old Rita fulfilled God’s calling for her. But God always asks the humble to do great things, and when he asked Rita to do more, she became a voice for countless children who may never know the gifts of love and life she gave them.

Rita’s faithfulness to God and his little ones led her to found the La Leche League of Pittsburgh in 1962; become a founding member of People Concerned for the Unborn Child in 1969; and founder of Birthright of Pittsburgh in 1971.

One of Rita’s favorite sayings was that of Mother Teresa: “Can there ever be too many children? That would be like saying there are too many flowers.” Rita helped flowers blossom from seeds and nurtured them with love in the garden of life.

A flower special to Rita was the red rose, the pro-life symbol. When Rita signed the charter for Birthright of Pittsburgh, the city’s first pregnancy support center, she started with a handful of friends and her youngest child was only 5 years old.

Through Birthright, she reached out to girls and women encountering unexpected pregnancies by providing alternatives to abortion with emotional and practical support, and a little resourcefulness.

I remember working at Birthright in 1999 when the phones became disconnected and we tried everything to fix them. Finally, I told Rita that I would have to call the phone company to check the lines.

She paused and said, “Wait. Let me see something.” She left the office and within 10 minutes the phone rang. “What happened?” I asked with surprise. “Oh, it was that old phone in my bedroom closet that must have fallen off the hook.” Rita still had the old, black telephone connected in her closet that she had used to take calls from our clients so her children would not disturb her during the early days of Birthright!

Her daughter, Anne, shared with me how she came home one day to find Rita holding a baby. When Anne asked about the baby, her mother said, “Oh, the baby will just be here for a little while.” The baby stayed with them for a few days.

Rita’s home was also the place where seven women, mostly housewives, met at her kitchen table and established PCUC. They collected $12 among themselves for their treasury and began one of the strongest pro-life organizations in the United States.

As a pro-life activist, Rita walked the streets in the city and communities and stood valiantly in front of abortion clinics while praying the rosary to create awareness for the cause of the unborn.

Devotion to the unborn erased any boundaries for Rita. She worked tirelessly with Birthright and pro-life groups throughout her lifetime to support mothers and babies. The last story Rita wrote for the Birthright newsletter illustrated a theme of accepting opportunities that we are given. Without her acceptance of God’s plan, generations of babies might never have been born.

An old Celtic melody with words by Amanda McBroom called “The Rose” characterizes Rita’s charity: “I say love, it is a flower, and you it’s only seed.” Rita was the “rose” of Birthright. In her sweet, fragrant memory the song whispers to us, “Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.”

Smith is executive director of Birthright of Pittsburgh.