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Sister Colleen epitomizes modern day Sister of Mercy

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One hundred men and women profess vows to religious communities every year. One of those women has professed her final vows as a Sister of Mercy of the Americas and will continue to serve the Buffalo Diocese.

Sister Colleen O’Toole, RSM, (Photo by Michelle Bronstrop Photography)

Sister Colleen O’Toole would make a great poster child for religious sisters because she fits the profile found by the National Religious Vocation Conference perfectly. At 32, Sister Colleen is the average age for a woman joining a community. She also has a bachelor’s degree, as do 70 percent of new entrants. She was also educated by the Mercy Sisters, at Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women in Brighton, just outside of Rochester – a common factor in professed women religious.

And like a lot of people who realize a religious vocation, her early spiritual life was, in her words, “meandering.”

“I didn’t know from a very young age that I wanted to be a sister. Some people do, and that’s good. I just assumed when you grow up you get married and you have kids. That’s what you do,” she said a few days before her May 28 profession.

Seeing the sisters only as teachers didn’t promise the exciting life she wanted as an adult. And although her family attended regular Sunday Mass, she didn’t feel she was holy enough.

“We didn’t have those stereotypical devotional practices that I thought you needed to have to be a good Catholic, who was called to religious life,” she said.

However, service was important to the family and it is a big part of the Mercy spirituality.

After graduating from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, trying to figure out what to do with her life, Sister Colleen recalled the Mercy Volunteer Corps, a one-year service program that promotes social change. Volunteers work in education, health care and social service while growing in spirituality and living in community.

“You’re in close contact with sisters,” Sister Colleen said. “Sometimes you work with them. They live down the street. They help you out with stuff. So, I got to know them a lot better.”

At that point, she grasped her own spirituality and realized how important service was to her. Having degrees in education and religious studies helped her discern her call.

“All that met. I was like, wait a minute. Is God calling me to religious life?”

While waiting for a big sign that never came, the sisters taught her how to discern vocations by listening to God. Still not feeling as if she was good enough, she agreed to try it out.

The Mercy Sisters have a candidacy process where entrants live with the sisters for a few years and learn the details of religious life, while still not making a commitment.

Sister Colleen O’Toole, RSM, kneels in prayer as she prepares to profess her final vows as a Sister of Mercy. (Photo by Michelle Bronstrop Photography)

“I had my own job. I had my own car. I paid my own bills,” Sister Colleen said. “At that point, you’re both getting to know each other. You meet with your vocation director fairly often. You meet with the community and you learn about the history of the community. It’s kind of the beginning processes. And you see if it’s a fit.”

An apostolic year follows, where one looks at different ministries she may be interested in pursuing.

“I came as a teacher. That’s a great ministry as a Sister of Mercy. That’s fine. But we have had women enter who have not had careers that, say, fit in with the works of mercy.”

Sister Colleen entered with a woman who did search and rescue missions with the Coast Guard. Those skills don’t transfer to religious life, so she looked at different ministries.

Throughout the many steps, Sister Colleen found religious life really was for her.

“I was like, huh, I kinda like this. It was really good and I just stayed,” she said. “It’s normal to have doubts. I think there is always a point, and I think it’s healthy, to be like ‘Is this for me?’ That’s why we have multiple stages. ‘You’ve been with us the past couple of years. Check in with yourself. What has changed? Is God still calling you to this?’ I have not had a crisis moment. I think that happens more than we would like to admit. People do leave for a variety of reasons.” She adds that her family has always been supportive.

During her novitiate phase, Sister Colleen engaged in prayer and study. After professing her first vows, she taught at Baker Hall in Lackawanna.After serving in two schools in Cincinnati as tutor and kindergarten aide, she returned to Western New York in 2020, when all the Catholic schools were teaching remotely due to the Covid-19-induced lockdown. A pastoral minister position opened up at St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park. Sister Colleen applied and has been there ever since. She plans to continue there now that she has taken her final vows.

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