It Was I Who Chose You

Sister Margaret Mary of the Sacred Heart, CP (Delphine Mattingly)


A vocation story begins in the Heart of the Blessed Trinity and is revealed to each individual person at a certain point in that person’s life history. The call comes from the Triune God and is spoken in and through the Word made Flesh. Through the years as I have reflected more  deeply on my call to Passionist  life and shared  my story with others, the words of Jesus have been always uppermost in my mind,  “It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you.”

Now, in the year of the Golden Jubilee of my Passionist Profession (August 22, 2001), there is an ever greater conviction that my vocation is totally God’s call and gift. He chooses whom He wills.   His call to me to share the Passionist charism was and is His plan for me–the specific way I am to live out my baptismal call in Christ before the foundation of the world.  

Reflecting on childhood memories, I recall clearly that early in my life, there was a tiny but persistent thought deep within, “Someday,  I will be a Sister.” Perhaps this was not an uncommon experience for a little Catholic girl growing up in the early and middle 1900s. For me, though, it was something that helped to mold my character, my attitudes, my childhood and young adult aspirations, and above all, my relationship to Jesus as a personal Friend. Now, it is clear to me that this persistent “thought” was the awakening in my heart of my vocation to be a Passionist nun.

It would take years for His call to take shape and eventually be followed.  There was no expectation of  something spectacular to happen that would let me know without a doubt that God was calling me to be a Sister.  Anytime, however, that the topic of vocations came up, something stirred in my heart to give special attention to it.

My initial  thoughts about possibly becoming a Sister were not shared with anyone early in my life. Our deeper thoughts and aspirations, though, influence our way of life and others close to us take notice.  Family and friends dropped an occasional remark, alerting me that they shared my secret thoughts about possibly becoming a Sister someday. The Ursuline Sisters who taught me and even more,  my pastor seemed to sense this possibility. 

Usually, there was a non committal attitude on my part to such remarks or suggestions.  It  seemed too far away to give it immediate attention. Deep within, though, there was a kind of relief or gratitude that others singled me out as a future nun. If they had this sense of my being called to  religious life, maybe this was one way God was clarifying for me my own thoughts and aspirations. Later, it was clear to me that  the comments of those who knew and loved me and which reflected  my own secret thoughts were actually revealing the eternal call of God to me. Others were helping me to read the signs of His call. He used their insights to help prepare me to receive His gift of a religious vocation and to say yes to it. Nothing extraordinary, but God’s ordinary way of using people and events to reveal His will to us. 

The Ursuline Sisters who taught me encouraged me and the other students to pray to know and follow our vocation in life.  They recommended frequent attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion and asking the intercession of Our Blessed Mother.  From my early grade school years, until after entering the Monastery, I continued a practice the Sisters recommended, to pray daily the Hail Mary three times and an ejaculation to Mary. 

In my late grade school days or early high school, I read the story of the life and revelations of St. Margaret Mary and was especially impressed by her personal love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and in His agony and prayer in the Garden of Gethsemani. This early acquaintance with St. Margaret Mary, plus other considerations, later led  my Superior to give me Margaret Mary as my religious name.

In actual practice, though, even this attraction to the cloister was still quite vague.  I didn’t know anything about cloistered communities and was hesitant to seem too eager to learn more about them. It was prayer that prevented my vocation from being choked by other attractions common to most or all young women who have the stirring of a vocation seed within their hearts. There was the attraction of having a family of my own or seeking a profession which especially appealed to me. In the last two years of high school, it was my pastor, Father Robert Whelan,  more than any other single person, through whom God answered my prayers for guidance. 

Near the beginning of my Junior year in high school, God “took over!” Through an unexpected turn of events flowing from His Divine Providence, He brought me and many others in the diocese “face to face” with living, cloistered nuns!  In early October, 1946, one of the Sisters teaching us at the time, announced that five Passionist Nuns had come to Owensboro to begin a monastery of their Religious Order. She went on to explain that Bishop Cotton had given the new nuns permission to have open house of their residence on Benita Avenue on October 8.   More good news–but news that could not surprise anyone who knew Father Whelan’s zeal for promoting vocations–was that Father was giving the high school students a half day off on October 8. This would give an opportunity to the students who wished, to visit the nuns and learn about cloistered, religious life. Father would provide a bus and any other transportation needed to get us to Owensboro. I am not sure how much we learned on that open house day about Passionist life in its deeper aspects, but we did learn that the nuns were very “human!” They answered our questions, laughed with us and seemed to understand when it was obvious that we did not “understand” most of their way of life .

The Sisters explained that they did not live in isolation from the world even though they did not teach or work in hospitals as other Sisters who were not cloistered. They described how they reached out to the whole world by prayer, and permitted women to come into the monastic area for weekend retreats.  Doubtless, they also emphasized their devotion to the Sacred Passion of Jesus.

Four of our group who came for open house day were among the first candidates to enter the new monastery. We were the first four to persevere. A postulant, Mary Dunnigan, had entered the monastery in Scranton, with an understanding of the superiors, to be part of the new foundation. Sister Mary, an older and experienced candidate, was the first one to be vested and professed at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Owensboro. She was a great role- model to us who entered at a much younger age, as we adjusted to monastic life. When Sister Mary died in 1966 at the age of 65, she left a big vacancy in our hearts and monastic home.

After the visit on open house day, there were more serious thoughts about possibly being a Passionist Nun some day. The life appealed to me, but to make the break with my family seemed too much to consider at this time. Actually, I had almost two more years of high school ahead of me so the thought of the Passionist Nuns was  pushed aside somewhat.

In my senior year, my pastor and I had more talks together.  Admitting a possible call to the Passionists I also had to admit the inner struggles going on.  Father was encouraging and gave practical advice to keep the possible vocation in mind but continue to wait and pray.  He did not suggest restrictions on my social life, so I continued to have good times with other young people and dated as much as there was an attraction to do so.  Of my own free will and choice, there were restrictions but from a sense of fidelity to Our Lord since His personal friendship was special to me.

After graduation from high school, I enrolled in Mt. St. Joseph Jr. College at the motherhouse of the Ursulines at Maple Mount, Kentucky and hoped this would be another step in the discernment of my vocation. Possibly God was calling me to this Order that was familiar to me and my family. 

When my initial homesickness, wore off, I loved life at the Mount and treasured the enriching friendships made there. Observing the postulants and novices when there was the opportunity, I would ask myself, “Can I see myself as one of them?”  By Christmas, there was a feeling  that  without undue difficulty, I could do so and be happy. After the Christmas holidays, we had our student retreat, but instead of making a decision to seek admission to the Ursuline community, I kept thinking of the Passionist monastery.  So much so, that when speaking with the Jesuit retreat master, I admitted my serious thought of seeking entrance to a cloistered community of Passionist Nuns! Father was supportive which gave me good feelings about my “decision!”   Another way of Jesus telling me, “You did not choose me, I chose you.”

My older sister, Doris, and I decided to make a weekend retreat at the new Passionist Monastery in the last week of April, 1949. Since our school retreat at Mount St. Joseph had been a few months earlier, it may have seemed strange to Doris that I was making another one. She didn’t ask, though, and probably suspected that a vocation discernment was going on. She would have respected my faith journey and didn’t probe. Doris had supported my desire to go to the Mount for school and helped me in many ways. May God bless and reward her!

One of the sisters, during our retreat, gave me a picture of St. Paul of the Cross, their founder, with a long prayer to him, which I began praying and later learned by memory.  While praying the prayer, I sensed a connectedness with this saint who lived two centuries earlier (1694-1775) in  another land and culture. The following words became especially meaningful during and after the retreat:

“O hero of sanctity, chosen by God to meditate day and night on the most bitter Passion of his only begotten Son, and to spread devotion to it throughout the world by your example, by your words and by means of your Institute.”  

I wanted to be part of this Institute, and it seemed that St. Paul of the Cross also wanted it. At this time I experienced my first deeply felt call to Passionist life. There was a sense of “being at home.”             

On my returning to the Mount to complete the few weeks of the semester, there were still the tormenting questions: “Can I really leave home and family in the total way the cloistered life will require of me? Can I give up the opportunities the active Orders would offer me to help other people? Would it not be better to choose a less strict Order while still following Our Lord in religious life?” Finally at the close of the semester, the answer came suddenly and stopped all questioning. “For you the Passionist, cloistered life is the way to give Me everything. Others can do this in other ways, but this is to be your way.”  These may not have been the exact words, but the message was unmistakable. There was never another question nor doubt  before or after the Sisters accepted me into  the Passionist community.

I now felt free even though there would be some difficult moments but never a doubt or question before I stepped  into the cloister. On telling my mother of my decision, she simply said, “If that is what you want to do.”  My dad, surprisingly, did not respond so favorably. He had been expecting that I would enter a convent but not this kind! He  never spoke of it in the following weeks but was kind and obliging. After some time, Father Whelan took my dad for a “long ride,” and daddy returned completely won over to my vocation to cloistered life. He never “looked back” and remained my  firm supporter until his death  on  Good Friday,  April 1, 1988. Lord, Jesus, bless my dear parents and let them and the other deceased members of the family rest eternally in your embrace of love.  Bless ALL the family who continue to support  my vocation and respect its requirements. They are truly a vital part of my vocation story and its unfolding day by day.  May God bless each one in this life and reward them in eternity.

Entrance into Monastery: August 14, 1949
Received the Passionist Habit: August 21, 1950
First profession vows: August 22, 1951
Final profession of vows: August 22, 1954
Silver Jubilee of Profession: August 22, 1976
Golden Jubilee of Profession: August 22, 2001

Yes, Jesus Chose me!
His Mercies I will sing forever!