By Catherine Walsh, Northeast Community Communications Specialist
Helping people embrace their gifts, grow in faith, and deal effectively with life’s challenges are Sister Sylvia Comer’s passions.
For nearly 30 years, she served at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, where she started the college’s campus and pastoral ministry programs, and counseled countless students, faculty and staff.
Although she retired last spring—receiving an honorary degree before she left—Sister Sylvia is still connected to the college. Her spiritual wisdom continues to inspire people in that community and beyond.
“My life is rich, but not utopia. Like everyone else, I have joys and woes,” says Sister Sylvia. “I’ve learned to wait out the bad times, like the changeable weather in Maine.” She loves a quote from Hafiz, a 14th-century Persian mystic: “I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”
A life steeped in Mercy
At age 88, Sister Sylvia notes, “I’m still going. Shrinking too!” She laughs easily and moves with the vigor of a younger person. Her energy, she says, comes from a life steeped in Mercy.
The fourth of seven children, Sylvia was close to her father, who, she recalls, “would bounce into the house and play with my siblings and me.” Another influence was Sister Christina, her second-grade teacher. “She was the most beautiful, kind person,” says Sister Sylvia. “I remember looking up at her and saying to myself, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be just like you!’” Sylvia’s amused father started calling the girl “my little nun.”
She entered the Sisters of Mercy at 17, then taught first-graders for the next 18 years. “The child’s delight is a wonder to behold,” reflects Sister Sylvia. “They taught me to appreciate little things—a caterpillar, a pigeon—that adults overlook.” Diocesan and parish ministries followed, as did guiding young women in formation as sisters.
A 1962 graduate of Saint Joseph’s College, Sister Sylvia returned in 1987 to help run a diocesan program—and stayed. In addition to her campus and pastoral ministry work, she taught theology courses (she holds two master’s degrees) and led, with Sister Michele Aronica, the first student service trips, to Appalachia, inner-city Baltimore, and Maine’s Penobscot Nation. (Sister Michele is professor and chair of sociology at Saint Joseph’s College.)
“I was 75 and sleeping in a sleeping bag over a soup kitchen,” says Sister Sylvia, chuckling. She also hiked with students and started many of the college’s beloved traditions, including a Blessing of the Hands ritual for nursing students.
Influenced by Catherine McAuley
Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, has greatly influenced Sister Sylvia’s spiritual direction work. “Catherine once pleaded with God, ‘Take from my heart all painful anxiety,’” notes Sister Sylvia. “She had her times of struggle and turned to God for help again and again.” But Sister Sylvia’s favorite Catherine quote is an optimistic one: “You must be cheerful and happy, animating all around you.”
In a video made by Saint Joseph’s College last spring to honor Sister Sylvia, the diminutive nun speaks to students about how to “live Mercy” by loving everyone—even people they don’t like. Her wisdom here can benefit everyone.
These days Sister Sylvia continues her spiritual direction work with diverse clients, visits campus, and volunteers at Catherine’s Cupboard, the college food pantry, where she previously served on the board. She also spends time with Sister Michele, her close friend and long-time campus housemate.
When introducing Sister Sylvia for her honorary degree, Sister Michele noted, “For so many, Sister Sylvia, you are a visible presence of God’s love in the world.”
Listen to guided meditations
Whatever your life’s path or calling, you may enjoy Sister Sylvia’s guided meditations, which are part of series called “A Way to Peace and Wholeness.” The meditations were recorded during her active ministry at Saint Joseph’s College and they have received “hits” from people across the world.