Sister Rita Clare (1933-2017) grew up in a musical family in Sydney. As a child she attended St. Joseph's School and Holy Angels Convent. She graduated from Holy Angels High School, the school where she would teach music for thirteen years. She studied at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, received her ARCT from the Royal Conservatory of Music and earned degrees from Columbia University in New York. With a passion for learning and for honing her skills as a choral music director, she completed numerous summer studies courses and attended workshops held in Canada, USA, and Europe.
After early music teaching experience in Mabou, Inverness, Sydney, and Newcastle, New Brunswick, she began teaching in 1969 at Holy Angels High in Sydney – the school from which she had graduated. By 1971, she was the head of the music department for Sydney schools, and in 1982, she became the Music Consultant with the newly formed Cape Breton District School Board. This was a position that she held until her retirement. Throughout those decades she was inspired and motivated by her love for music and by her belief in what music can do for the cultural life of communities. Over her music room door at Holy Angels was a sampler that read "Music in the school brings sunshine to the home." She wrote, "I believe in music; I believe it speaks to the soul and thus strongly influences our lives: I believe it can help all of us, young and not so young, to open our hearts and minds to its message and allow our spirits to be touched, strengthened, deepened, and refreshed."
Driven by that love for music, she carved out a remarkable career and emerged as a warmly respected musical leader. Her Holy Angels Chorale, made up of students in the girls-only high school, was superb and won numerous provincial and national awards. A particular highlight was performing Mendelssohn's Elijah with Symphony Nova Scotia, and then repeating the performance at home in Cape Breton. In 1973, she agreed to direct an adult group, the Cape Breton Chorale, and for more than 30 years its members travelled from all over the 5 islands to rehearse for 2 1/2 hours every Thursday evening. The choir was recognized as one of the finest choral organizations in Canada and their concerts were a delight to audiences at home and as far afield as Wales and Scotland. The concerts were also a reminder of the significance of music on Cape Breton Island. Sister Rita also formed a Cape Breton Youth Choir in 1988, so that youth across the island could experience the joy of singing together beautifully. During her career she was also musical director for Rotary musical theatre productions, a Canada Winter Games choir, and ukulele and folk groups.
Not surprisingly, Sister Rita’s contributions to the cultural life of Cape Breton were recognized. She was made an Honorary Citizen of Sydney in 1985, recognized officially by the government of Nova Scotia for her contribution to the 1987 Canada Winter Games for organizing and conducting a 200-voice choir, and awarded an honorary doctorate by the University College of Cape Breton in 1991.
Former choir members speak of her with respect and great warmth. They speak of how beautiful the music was. For some the choir was the main reason they went to school. They speak of her dedication and superb preparation for rehearsals. They tell of how much singing together and striving for the most beautiful interpretation of the music meant to them. But those who were students in her choirs also tell of Sister Rita's caring and understanding. She was often a mentor and guidance counsellor for them, and they could share their problems with her. One former choir member has spoken of recording a cassette tape for an Acadia University music audition on Sister Rita's clock radio, because the only microphone available that day wouldn't work. In her choirs, individuals could find support, concern and friendship.
Sister Rita Clare was an innovative, dedicated, talented woman who was determined to give the very best to the people in her Cape Breton community and did so for more than fifty years. Her musical leadership has left a lasting legacy for those in her choirs and those who were fortunate enough to experience their singing. Throughout those years, what "made her tick,” as she remarked in a 2004 interview, was "the exhilarating experience of making music together, of sharing in the joy of song, of hoping that for this one performance, people will set aside their worries and leave the concert venue refreshed in spirit."
Alistair MacGillivray, the well-known Cape Breton songwriter has called Sister Rita "a true Cape Breton treasure." She was honoured both locally and provincially for her extraordinary musical leadership; she was much respected and loved by thousands of former choir members and the Cape Breton community at large.