The Story of “I Am the Bread of Life”

September 2, 2016

By Sister Suzanne Toolan

This is the fourth reflection in our Music and Mercy series. Read the whole series here.

Sister Suzanne Toolan. Credit: Michael Collopy

Sister Suzanne Toolan. Credit: Michael Collopy

I wrote “I Am the Bread of Life” for a San Francisco archdiocesan event in 1964.  I was teaching high school at the time and wrote the song during my free period.  When the bell rang for the next class I decided I didn’t like the music, so I tore it up and threw it in the wastepaper basket.

My classroom was next to the infirmary, where the girls who didn’t want to take tests or were otherwise unprepared for class went for a period or two until they were tracked down by an exasperated teacher. As I left my classroom, a freshman girl came out of the infirmary and said, “What was that?  It was beautiful!” I went back into my classroom, took the manuscript out of the basket and taped it together. It has had a life of its own ever since.  

“I Am the Bread of Life” began to appear in archdiocesan liturgies. There were many purple ditto copies going around. Not everyone liked the hymn. One liturgist gave talks on why it shouldn’t work, saying: “It is not metric; its tessitura [vocal range] is too high.  Its tessitura is too low.” Others objected to it because they felt by placing the words of Jesus into the mouths of the assembly, those words were being attributed to the assembly.

Travelers to Europe and Asia in the 70s and 80s would tell me about hearing “I Am the Bread of Life” in different countries. I have a copy of it in a Slavic language, in Korean and Spanish, but it has been sung in so many other languages. It is included in hymnals of other Christian faith traditions. I remember being introduced to a woman who was Episcopalian. When she heard my name she said, “Oh, number 335!”—the number of the hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal.

I could never figure out how the hymn became popular. I know in our Roman Catholic tradition it came at the beginning of our use of the vernacular, and we simply didn’t have much to sing in our own language. But I also think its popularity stems from its message of resurrection, which is so strong in these words of Jesus. We so need that message of hope. I am always touched when people tell me that at the funeral of a mother, father or friend, these sung words of Jesus gave them consolation.  Then I know the hymn has done its work.

Thank you, young freshman way back in 1964! I’m sorry if you were not feeling well that day and had to go to the infirmary—or, I’m glad that you decided to sit that class out. I hope your teacher didn’t scold you too much.

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  1. Lorraine Moylan Cassano

    I live on Long Island, New York. Way back in 1976 I traveled to California with some friends. We attended Easter Mass at St. Monica’s Cathedral. “I Am the Bread of Life” was the recessional hymn. We all loved it and found ourselves singing it in the car afterwards. It was several years before we began to hear this beautiful hymn back in New York. After all these years, I still think of the first time I heard it! I am also glad that your student was listening!

  2. Mary Ann (Fitzgerald) Lally

    Thank you for the beautiful history of one of my favorite hymns, Sister Suzanne.

  3. Chris Hochstetler

    Sister Suzanne is a dear friend and a wonderful example of Mercy. Whenever we sing her hymn at Mass, I am reminded of her and how much I miss seeing her. She has given much to the world in her work, it is inspired and becomes inspiration that brings us closer to our Lord and Savior. I love this song during the joy of Communion. – Thank you Sister Suzanne!

  4. Linda

    I have always enjoyed this hymn very much.

  5. Clair Ireland Ryan

    I first sang “I am the Bread of Life” in the novitiate choir of the Sisters of Mercy of Merion, PA. We sang it in three parts and the harmonies were stunning. My path took me to become a wife, mother, teacher, and music minister. I still enjoy using this lovely hymn whenever I can. Thank you, Sister Suzanne!

  6. Ann McGovern, RSM

    It is a beautiful Hymn, Suzanne!

  7. Linda Rouleau Klajbor

    Sister Suzanne, your music is the score for my deepest prayers and the soundtrack for my youth- I confess to have bragged about our association a few times. Blessings for joy! You have certainly given it to me!

  8. Bill Watson

    Thank you so much for writing this hymn. I really appreciate the juxtaposition of John chapters 6 and 11. I’m sorry to hear it’s been controversial; for me, it’s a wonderful meditation on a pair of Scriptural texts that are among the most defining to the Christian faith.

  9. Anthony

    Thank you, I love the song, “I am the Bread of Life” It is a song of hope – “I Am the Bread of Life.”
    I’m glad you went back and took that song out of the trashcan, and glad for that student. This is how God uses his people. Sister (You) and the girl that saw the song in the trashcan. It was providence, that you were at the right time at the right place, before the can was emptied… and that the student said something to you. 🙂

  10. Teresa R.

    I am a soprano in a small choir in a rural Catholic Parish. I just wanted to tell you how much I love this beautiful hymn! I have been singing it for many years, both from the pew and from the choir. It is a wonderful communion hymn, and I am always happy to see it in our Mass “line up”. I am so very glad that you pulled it back out of that wastepaper basket!
    Thank you for sharing the story with us May God bless you abundantly!

  11. Loryanne Baciocco Rehne

    A beautiful song. i sang this many times at school with Sister Suzanne during mass. This is a beautiful song and I always think of her when I hear it.

  12. Christopher McGilton

    This is certainly one of the greatest Catholic hymns ever written! The story of how this came about is quite remarkable – God even works through the trash! I didn’t know the story of how this hymn came about and after reading this, I have an even greater appreciation for it. Several years ago I felt inspired to arrange a modulation for transitioning from the refrain after the fourth verse into the fifth verse…by that time the voice would be warmed up enough to handle the 1/2 step key change after the modulation into the fifth verse! So yes even though it requires more than the average vocal range to sing it most people do anyway! God bless you sister!

  13. Cris Demattei Philipps

    47 or so years after singing this hymn under Sister Suzanne’s direction, I can still feel it’s power and see her face as she guided us through its “tessitura”. Those were fine days, Sister Suzanne, and that your music has touched so many is no surprise to me!

  14. Gerard Rohlf

    When I first sang this song I agreed with the liturgists about its meter and tessitura (my Daughter explained and demonstrated its to me). But then, I noticed the Tune stayed in my head, and the Words snugged themselves into my Heart. It became a Favorite in spite of itself – and my rigid, snobbish preconceptions about Music! Now I sing it with Reverence and Pride – it’s a Winner.

  15. Rose DeMeyer

    Dear Sister Suzanne,

    I can be almost sure that one of the reasons your song became so popular is that this song was and is sung in thousands of Charismatic Prayer Groups all over the world in these past 40 years. The song was so worshipful that it was sung all the time. It also made an easy transition from prayer groups into the liturgy where very few songs were able to make that transition just because of the nature of how people worshiped. Thank you for listening to the Holy Spirit and the young girl who found it so beautiful. It truly is a staple in Christian Worship.

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  17. Mary Peitler

    One of my very favorites! I sang it as a Catholic, and now as a member of an Episcopalian congregation, continue to enjoy singing it at a choir member!

  18. Mary Ann (Toschi) Walker

    I have moved away from the Bay Area but have felt such intense consolation and peace when my parish family here sings “I Am The Bread of Life.” It brings back the deeply spiritual impact it had on my life to sing under Sister Suzanne’s direction! My girls recognize the song from it’s first three notes because they know how special it is! It has been song at family funerals and weddings. I cannot thank Sister Suzanne enough for the gift of grace we have all received through her song. I’m so thankful that the girls in the infirmary commented on it!

  19. Mary Anne Schwartz

    I am so thrilled that the director of music and liturgy at my church (The Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton, Ohio) shared this on Facebook! Sr. Suzanne, you are my third cousin. My father, William F. Schwartz was your second cousin. He was born in Michigan and his parents were Leo and Viola Schwartz. My Mother converted to Catholicism when they married, and she dearly loved “I am the Bread of Life”. We sing it frequently at my church, and it remains a strong connection to her for me. I’m looking forward to sharing this information with the Schwartz family members that I am in contact with. They will be thrilled Thank you!

  20. Sister Anne Sophie

    Dear Sister Susanne,
    Each time I sing I still see you before me helping me to reach that high or get on key to that low note. Because of what you taught me back in 1970 and 1971 I have fond memories of music, playing piano and guitar by ear with your constant encouragement. Your warm smile helped me tremendously! Thank you for that and thank you for following God’s will in your vocation! Your giufts have touched the entire world! I answered God’s call and became a religious too. Love you!

  21. Sr. Judith Kapp, RSM

    This song has special meaning for me. It was sung at both of my parent’s funerals. Yes, a source of comfort! Thank you!

  22. Winnie

    In Kenya, we have it in Kiswahili.
    O i love it…

  23. Mark Kortenkamp

    Hi Sister Suzanne,

    The Freshman girl in this story, is my mother, Virginia Leyes. She told me the story the same way. What an interesting turn of events!

    . As I left my classroom, a freshman girl came out of the infirmary and said, “What was that? It was beautiful!” I went back into my classroom, took the manuscript out of the basket and taped it together. It has had a life of its own ever since.

    Best Wishes, Mark Kortenkamp

  24. Jacqueline Lee Lambie

    How I came to meet Sister Suzanne is a wonderful story, but much too long to tell it here. Let me skip to the day I met her. After our introductory contacts through the mail, I had come to Mercy Center for a meeting with Sister Suzanne and Sister Marguerite Buchanan to determine if I was suitable to be included in the month of July retreat in the Art of Spiritual Direction, as it was in 1986.
    I was warmly welcomed by Sister Marguerite, who after a brief visit in the foyer of Mercy Center, led me down two flights of stairs to where I was to meet Sister Suzanne. I’d expected to meet in their office; however, we stepped into an empty dining room. “Sister, I have Jacqueline here to meet with us,” she said. I heard a voice say, “Oh yes,” and suddenly, out from under the sink at the end of the room, Sister Suzanne appeared. That was my introduction to a beautiful learning period in my life and the beginning of a loving relationship that has stayed with me all my life.
    Oh my, that was thirty-two years ago. It’s as if it was yesterday.

  25. Jim Keefe

    We musicians always dream of changing people’s lives with our music. Sr. Suzanne is one of the rare few who actually did. Thank you, Sister, from the bottom of my heart and the top of my voice!

  26. Peggy Patterson

    I am honored to have had Sister Suzanne as my music teacher (we called the class “Chorale”) at Mercy High School in Burlingame, California. Even as freshmen in 1978, we students understood what a big deal it was to be singing this song under the direction of its composer. Most of us already knew and loved the song, as we had sung it at our various churches and Catholic Schools (I first learned the song at St. Timothy’s in San Mateo, singing choir with Mrs. Toni Lesco), but somehow, singing it with Sister Suzanne made the song so much more beautiful. Back in the 70s, we sang it with her original lyrics: And I will raise him up. To this day, it is one of my favorite hymns. Thank you, Sister Suzanne!

  27. Matthew Meador

    This hymn can be credited with saving my salvation.

    I never doubted the foundation of my faith but I went through a lengthy period of overwhelming doubt in myself — and the spiritual laziness that might be expected to accompany such an undisciplined time of lack.

    This enormously uplifting hymn is the first song in my life that made me raise my hands to Jesus. Crown Him with Many Crowns came close but never quite did it. Sr. Suzanne Toolan’s I Am the Bread of Life made me raise my hands and sing with all my heart. There are now a handful of hymns which can cause me to exalt the Lord in similar fashion but I Am the Bread of Life was the first and shall remain my favorite.

    Thank you more than I can ever say, Sr. Suzanne.

  28. Luz Eugenia Alvarez

    I always loved this song. I knew it in Spanish and I had the honor to visit with Sr. Suzanne Toolan

  29. Ann Mcgovern

    Can’t count the number of times I’ve sung this beautiful hymn! Thank you Suzanne. Struck and left speechless by the criticism about the people of God singing Jesus’ words?!

  30. Susannah MacLeod

    I was teaching in a Catholic school and our pastor died. We all went to his funeral .Every priest in Arizona must have been there and it was the most beautiful Mass I could have ever imagined. The song I am the Bread of Life was sung by all of us. I had never heard it before and it made me cry. I think it is the most beautiful church song I have ever heard. Whenever it’s on the board to sing at Mass my whole family says, “Yes!”. I have written in my ‘plans’ that I want it played at my funeral. Thank you, Sister, for writing it for you have done the world a great favor and thank you freshman girl for letting her know.

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  32. John Johnson

    Thank you for the Hymn Sister form all of us here in the Archdiocese of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago.

  33. Mary Ann Lally

    John Johnson,
    Your comment popped up in my email today as an addition to the blog. How nice to hear a voice from Trinidad. When I sing this hymn, I will pray for you and your fellow Christians in the Archdiocese.
    “He who comes to me shall not hunger….”

  34. John Johnson

    Thank you Mary for your kind words and prayers. May the Holy Spirit fill your life and home with love and joy this Advent and Christmas.
    God bless you!