© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Sister Corita, Co-Founder Of Operation Breakthrough and 'Mom' To More Than 70 Foster Children, Dies At 87

Courtesy photo
Operation Breakthrough
Sister Corita Bussanmas, the co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, died Saturday, March 27, 2021. She was 87.

Sisters Corita Bussanmas and Berta Sailer co-founded Operation Breakthrough in 1971. Bussanmas could be stern, but she loved every child she cared for.

Sister Corita Bussanmas, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, died Saturday, March 27, 2021. She was 87.

Bussanmas was born Dec. 11, 1933, in Des Moines, Iowa, to Otto and Mary Bussanmas, the seventh of eight children. She entered Mount Carmel Convent in Dubuque after graduating from high school in 1952. She joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1955.

CH2-Sister Corita 2.jpg
Operation Breakthrough
Sister Corita Bussanmas worked behind the scene to keep Operation Breakthrough afloat.

In 1958, Bussanmas' order sent her to Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago, where a fire had just killed 92 students. It was there that she learned to comfort traumatized children — and where she met Sister Berta Sailer. The pair were then sent to St. Vincent's at 31st Street and Flora Avenue in Kansas City, but the once-Catholic midtown neighborhood was becoming African American and Protestant.

"In those days, middle- and upper-class people, the wife stayed home and the husband worked,” Bussanmas said. “Well, a lot of our single moms needed childcare, and it wasn't a regulated industry then at all.”

So with Sailer, Bussanmas started providing child care for single mothers. When the diocese tried to close the school, Bussanmas and Sailer pushed back. They founded Operation Breakthrough as a nonprofit in 1971 with Bussanmas as executive director, over the objections of the Catholic Church.

“We named it Operation Breakthrough for two reasons: We were going to break through poverty, and it was during the Vietnam War,” Bussanmas told KCUR in 2013. “We thought the government would think it was part of the war effort and they would give us money, but that didn't happen.”

Corita holding baby.JPG
Courtesy Operation Breakthrough
Operation Breakthrough
Sister Corita Bussanmas was known to be a stern disciplinarian, but she was always affectionate with babies. She would let them sit on her lap and play with her jewelry.

Bussanmas worked 16-hour days to keep Operation Breakthrough open in the 1970s and 1980s. She rarely cashed her own paychecks. In 1994, Bussanmas and Sailer became licensed foster parents. Bussanmas was “Mom” to the four children she adopted: Yauti, Ronnie, Vanshay and Tyrez, and second Mom to Chris, Myles and many others. More than 70 young people spent all or part of their childhoods with Bussanmas and Sailer.

Bussanmas usually left the worrying to Sailer. Worrying, she said, “never makes any difference. God takes care of everything in the end.”

Loring Leifer wrote a book about Bussanmas and Sailer in 2016, “Angels with Angels: The Rogue Nuns behind Operation Breakthrough.”

"Sister Berta would rock the boat and Sister Carita kept it afloat,” Leifer said in a 2019 interview. “She'd sit down and learn how to operate or work a new accounting program. She paid more attention to the managerial aspects of doing what they did. But she loved the kids equally. Yes, she did.”

During her lifetime, Bussanmas was honored several times for her service to Kansas City, including the Bank of America Neighborhood Builder Award in 2006 and the Marion and John Kreamer Award for Social Entrepreneurship from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. With Sailer, she was recently chosen for UMKC’s Starr Women’s Hall of Fame.

“Sister Corita didn’t ever get the public attention Sister Berta did, but she actually had a sense of faith and a sense of God supporting her,” Leifer said. “I think she actually had more of an idea of being driven or motivated by God. And I don't think Berta stopped worrying about these kids long enough to really think about it, although they both were, of course, women of enormous faith."

CH1-Sr. Berta and Corita 2 5-26-14.jpg
Courtesy Operation Breakthrough
Sisters Berta Sailer, left, and Corita Bussanmas, together fostered more than 70 children in their Raytown home.

Bussanmas had to slow down in 2012 after breaking her back in a fall, though it didn't stop her from cheering on the Kansas City Royals. She is survived by Sailer, the many children they raised and her faithful dog, Lady.

Donations in her honor can be made to Operation Breakthrough or to the Sisters Berta and Corita Irrevocable Trust for the care of their family, Country Club Bank, One Ward Parkway, Kansas City, MO 64112.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions. Email me at lauraz@kcur.org and follow me on Twitter @laurazig.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.