Vocation Story

Sister Mary Suzanne Sapa, O.Carm.

When I reflect on my vocation story, I often muse that in addition to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” something else emerged from that borough of Churches where my twin sister and I were born on December 28, 1945: my religious vocation as a Carmelite Sister for the Aged and Infirm!

Unlike some, my journey towards religious life was hardly a foregone conclusion from my childhood days.  In actuality, I had not entertained any thought of religious life until my college years.  Reared in an upright, not overly religious family, I attended public school and went to catechism class once a week at St. John the Evangelist parish.  My Mother saw to it that my sister and I attended Mass at St. John’s on Sundays.  My Father belonged to the Eastern rite and did not attend Mass with us.  I remember that an uncle on my Mother’s side used to say the Rosary, and one day on one of our annual summer visits to his home in Binghamton, New York, he taught me the “mechanics” of it, too.  Since that time, devotion to Our Lady through the rosary was always an important part of my prayer life.  It also led me to join the Blessed Virgin Sodality from St. Stanislaus the Martyr parish where I met other young women who shared a similar love of Mary. 

While in high school, I was greatly influenced by an English teacher that I had.  Mr. John Cyr had a smile and wit that delighted all of us students.  Best of all, besides teaching us about the basics of sentence structure and grammar, he always managed to inject a word of wisdom about the real values in life.  I can remember him cautioning that looks and beauty are not everything, especially “when one’s hair starts bailing out!”  He taught us to look deeper at the person, and  not be trapped by the externals.   It was this same, dear teacher who encouraged any of us who would be going to non-Catholic colleges to join the  Newman Club on campus as a way of keeping our faith alive in a secular setting.  And so it was when I began my studies at the City College of New York on 23rd Street in Manhattan in September of 1963 that I joined the college’s Newman Club.  The club had a nice mix of male and female students.  We would come together for meetings, and for some reason known only to the good Lord, I was put in charge of “religious activities” for the club. 

With Christmas on the horizon, the consensus was that we should visit an orphanage and do something to brighten the season for children.  When I approached our chaplain and told him of our thoughts, he was supportive, but suggested an alternative: Why not visit the elderly?  He suggested that sometimes children are the first to be remembered during the holiday season, but very often the elderly are the most forgotten…. Reporting back to the group, I presented our chaplain’s thoughts.  Our members were receptive to his suggestion, and so began my “search” for a home for the aged that we could visit.  I was given the names of two facilities that cared for the elderly.  I knew neither, but liked the name of one:  Mt. Carmel Home on 54th Street in Manhattan.  I phoned the home, and was put in contact with the Activities Director who happened to be a Carmelite Sister for the Aged and Infirm.  I arranged for an appointment, and was totally impressed by the spirit of joy that I found in my first meeting with Sr. Joseph Michael.  She was welcoming and easy to relate to, and her sense of humor put me right at ease.

Alas, our group found its way to Mt. Carmel and put on a Christmas Pageant that was great fun for us, and brought smiles to the dear residents who lived there.  That sense of purpose and joy found me coming back to serve as a volunteer throughout my college years.  Serving at Mt. Carmel Home and getting to know the residents became very life-giving for me.  Although I had my own circle of friends and looked forward to becoming a teacher, there seemed to be something missing in my life.  Sometimes as I emerged from the subway station returning home from school or my part-time typing job in lower Manhattan, I would hear a little voice within me say that there’s got to be more to life than the hustle and bustle of every day.  God was whispering to me…

That Voice loomed louder when one day, out of the blue, Sr. Joseph Michael asked me if I had ever considered being a Sister.  The thought did pop into my head once or twice, but was dismissed even faster knowing that I was not a parochial-school product, nor had I much experience with the elderly.  Then came the invitation:  How would I like to visit the Motherhouse of the Carmelite Sisters in Germantown, New York?  An annual bazaar known as “Dollar Day” was to take place, and I was invited to join the Sisters and residents who would be attending from Mt. Carmel Home.

The rest is practically history.  The joy of the Sisters at Mt. Carmel was echoed in the joy of the Sisters that I met from other houses of the Congregation.  I felt drawn to the Congregation, and prayed for the grace to love the elderly if I were to embrace a life of service to them.  God heard my prayer, and gave me a deep and abiding love for His aged souls who became very dear to me.  When Sr. Joseph Michael gave me the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila to read, I also felt very much drawn to this great Saint of Carmel whose common-sense spirituality and love of “His Majesty” resonated with my own love of Christ and desire for union with Him.

After having worked as a teacher in Bay Ridge High School for a year, I decided that the time had come for me to join the Carmelite Sisters.  On September 8, 1968, my family accompanied me to St. Patrick’s Home in the Bronx where I would begin my journey as a Postulant.  My parents were sad and upset about my entering since they had no idea of what the life was really like, with their knowledge being limited to what they had seen in “The Nun’s Story.”  My sister was not surprised, but still had wet eyes when she and my parents brought me to the Bronx.  Although separating from family was painful, God’s graces were not lacking.  My parents came to visit me on each and every visiting day, and came to fall in love with the Community that would one day provide terminal care to my Dad, and several years of wonderful care to my Mom who also died in one of our homes.

Upon entering the convent, we find that God “taps” our talents and abilities and brings out those that we didn’t know we had!  I was able to use my secretarial skills both as a young novice and much later as Secretary General for our Congregation.  My teaching skills also came in handy as I served as Postulant Director for six years, and had the privilege of guiding our newest members just setting out on the “Carmelite trail!”  After various leadership positions, I was assigned to Carmel Richmond Nursing Home in Staten Island where I presently serve in the Pastoral Care Department.  I feel so blessed to be a small part of life’s journey for the elderly men and women whom I visit here.  Sickness and suffering weigh heavily on one’s mind and heart, and if I can lift the burden a little – just to let them know that they are not alone, and that God really loves and cares for them – I know that I continue to be in the right place, and I remain deeply grateful for my call as a Carmelite Sister.

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Sister Mary Suzanne Sapa, O.Carm.