BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Jim and Rita Cwengros grew up in Leelanau County and were high school sweethearts at Glen Lake Community Schools.
After decades away to raise a family, they'd planned to return to the county and recently bought a second home near Lake Leelanau.
Their hopes were dashed Jan. 11 when the brakes failed in their vehicle on a curvy, mountainous road in Haiti. Their vehicle plunged hundreds of feet into a ravine.
Jim, 54, and Rita, 53, were among four missionaries from Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Grand Rapids killed on the way to the church's sister parish in the small mountain village of Seguin.
"Jim and Rita loved to go to Haiti," said Rita's sister, Shirley Mikowski, 59, of Cedar. "Jim first went in 2009 with his daughter, then he and Rita planned a trip before the big earthquake of 2010. Their lives were transformed after that. In all the trips they took to Haiti they never talked about the dangers. They talked about the people and how they hated to leave them behind."
"They had such a passion for those kids," said Joan Gauthier, of Cedar, another of Rita's siblings. "They couldn't wait to get there. In fact, they adopted a Haitian family."
Rita, born in Northport, was the youngest of 12 children of the late Ed and Irene Fleis of Cedar. She and Jim, who moved to the area with his family, married in 1979 at Holy Rosary Church in Cedar, where they attended Mass in July as part of a Fleis family reunion.
"She was very fun-loving. So was Jim," Gauthier, 56, said. "They were very passionate and they loved their family."
"Our families are like a rosary bead," Mikowski said of the large, close-knit clan that includes local siblings Ruth Ann Smith, of Suttons Bay, and Bernadette Denoyer, of Cedar. "We each have a little knot and we're all tied together."
Jim was a regional medical research specialist with Pfizer International. Rita, a graduate of Northwestern Michigan College and a registered nurse by education, had a scrapbooking business and did volunteer work in her church and community. The Grand Rapids couple were making their fifth and third mission trips to Haiti, respectively, where they helped with dental and medical care, sanitation and education.
"Let me tell you what Rita's favorite words were: 'Let's go,'" Mikowski said. "She was always doing something."
"She was the most adventurous out of all 12 of us," Gauthier said.
Funeral arrangements are pending while the family works to return the bodies to the United States.