Walking Sisters and their well-worn shoes

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By Sister Colleen O’Toole 

I’ve spent the last few weeks pondering my shoes. There’s a stereotype of nuns wearing sensible shoes. It’s generally true, but as a younger sister, I try to aim for the semi-stylish side of comfortable at this point in my life. However, after a year of working with preschoolers and a summer of attending school myself, I found myself at the orthopedist complaining of foot pain. 

After an X-ray and an exam, I received the news that nothing was wrong with my feet other than overuse! The doctor recommended elevation, rest and a good pair of supportive shoes. What was the first brand she recommended? The one most of the older sisters wear! I bargained my way to my somewhat clunky, unstylish and supportive sneakers that had been gathering dust in the back of my closet.  

While I’ve been wearing shoes that don’t match anything else I wear, I’ve been thinking about a gift I received when I made my final vows: a plaque with a pair of worn-out boots and the story of the early Sisters of Mercy, called “The Walking Nuns.” When we were founded, the sisters went out in pairs “walking around looking for those in need, visiting the sick and poor people in their homes and visiting hospitals.”1 

We often recall the history when we near celebrations like Mercy Day. So I took stock of where my shoes and I, a walking nun, have been in the past few weeks.  

I minister at a Head Start program in a preschool classroom. Before school starts, the teachers go on home visits with the children who will be in their classroom. It gives the teachers a chance to meet their students in a setting that is comfortable for the families. Parents ask questions about paperwork or school routines; the children often show off their favorite toy, a special drawing, or even their younger siblings. As my coworker and I drove around what seemed like the entire city of Buffalo, we walked across yards and up and down apartment stairs to learn where our students lived, who they lived with, and what their neighborhood was like. 

On one recent weekend, the parish I attend had their annual picnic. I found myself standing for several hours, in my shoes and gloves, as I helped serve a seemingly never-ending line of people with what looked to be a very limited amount of food. As is often the case, there was plenty to go around. After everyone ate their fill, the dancing and games began.  

I also visit some residents of a local nursing home on a weekly basis. It’s a sizeable building, and because of various activities and visits, I am often walking up and down halls and riding the elevators in search of my residents. Some may be at the weekly coffee social or receiving therapy or organizing the libraries on each floor. If the residents are in their rooms, I am often asked to sit down and visit. If I catch them elsewhere, I might have to crouch down to speak to them. By now, some of the employees recognize me, and try to save me and my shoes an extra trip down a hallway.  

The Mercy tradition of tracking down the needy and going to meet people where they are is alive and well, albeit in a different way. I have realized that this practical Mercy care for others has been in my life for much longer than I thought. Even back as a student at Our Lady of Mercy High School, in Rochester, New York, I would watch the sisters track down students for homework or a conversation, gather donations for the annual Christmas drive for local families and even walk the semi-precarious steps of the grotto as the May Court practiced for the May Crowning. As a Mercy volunteer in Detroit, Michigan, I saw Sisters walk to protest unfair immigration laws, chase down adult GED students for one more practice test and trudge our basement steps to fix our broken washer. Perhaps it’s time to swallow my pride a little bit more and fully commit to a strong pair of comfortable walking shoes. Though I think they might raise an eyebrow at the colors, I like to think the early sisters would smile when they see my well-worn shoes.