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Sister Patty Cook is a retired sister with the Religious Sisters of Mercy who worked in her ministries to spread the message of God’s loving mercy. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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In the midst of a world overwhelmed with anxiety about the COVID-19 outbreak, Sister Patricia Cook RSM, PhD, does not let the barrage of bad news faze her. On the contrary—she exudes a joy that is apparent in her laughter and a sense of peace and serenity most evident in her words.
At the time of her interview, she explains that she awaits word if a scheduled pilgrimage to the Holy Land she annually leads will take place at all as air travel bans are being considered. And while she hopes the trip will take place, she leaves it all to God’s will.
A resident of East Haven and a sister with the Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM), she likes to be called Sister Patty and routinely greets people with a message of peace, “Have a peaceful day” or “Be at peace.”
She obtained her PhD in systematic contemporary theology from Fordham University and her post doctoral certificate in supervision of ministry from Yale University.
At 84, she has the energy and exuberance of a woman 20 years her junior. She is the middle of nine children, with only one living sibling, a younger sister, Kathleen, in Florida. Her mother was aged 96 when she passed away in 2000.
To anyone who asks her about her ability to stay young, she is only too willing to share her knowledge.
“I would say I have three secrets that I don’t mind telling the world,” she reveals.
“The first one is I pray a lot. The second one is I laugh a lot. I think the joy and the happiness of life is part of the presence of God. That I believe, so I laugh a lot and I joke a lot. And third, I swim a lot because I need something for my body.”
It’s a winning trifecta that keeps her active: prayer for her soul, laughter for her spirit, and exercise for her body.
The desire to be a sister came in her teens. It was not a moment of revelation or a flash of enlightenment that led her to a path of vocation. Rather, it was a gentle but continuous nudge, a quiet tugging of the heart that she says gave her a yearning to be closer to God, and also to be of service to mankind.
“I knew at the age of 16 that I wanted to be a nun. I think I had a sense God was inviting me. I had a sense of being invited. I think they call it ‘the call,’” she says.
“For me, it was an invitation. I wanted to make a difference with my life,” she adds.
She grew up in Unionville, by the banks of the Farmington River, and the nights in her home were occasions of quiet contemplation that nurtured her calling.
“I can remember in summertime, pulling the mattress off my bed. My sister Kathleen has her bed on the other side of the room. I used to pull my mattress off the bed onto the floor and I would sleep on the floor, on the mattress, and put my head up near the window. I could hear the river,” she recalls.
“I had a sense that there was something meditative, contemplative, calming, [and] prayerful that somehow that was the action of the divine,” she adds. “I think it started with [that] and I didn’t know I was being prayerful. I just thought I was enjoying the river.”
Two months after graduating from high school, she pursued that calling and came to the Sisters of Mercy. She is retired now but still holds talks and workshops at Mercy by the Sea in Madison. She recently held Lenten talks on saints at the center.
Mercy by the Sea is a facility run by the Sisters of Mercy but is open to the public, regardless of denomination or religious belief. It sits on 33 acres fronting Long Island Sound, making it ideal as a center for retreats and meditative events. The facility has 35 guest rooms with separate baths, a chapel, an art gallery, and multiple meeting rooms for conferences. A number of rooms at the facility have large picture windows to take full advantage of the scenic view of the water.
Sister Patty calls her work with the Sisters of Mercy her “five ministries,” which were works of charity and mercy that helped different groups of people.
She worked first as a teacher, a position she held for 22 years. She started teaching in Mercy High School in Middletown, then taught in colleges as well, including Fordham University and the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1932.
Her work in education led her to think about providing spiritual guidance to those searching for God. Thus, at the end of her 22 years in teaching, she began facilitating retreats and spiritual formation sessions—her second ministry.
Her third ministry brought her to Guatemala in 1985 to serve as a missionary nun “in a little, little humble country church” with three other Sisters of Mercy.
“I absolutely loved being in Guatemala. It was hollowing for me. It emptied out a lot of whatever stuff had accumulated from the years. It was very humbling, because nobody in my village cared if I had a PhD. [It] didn’t matter. I loved the people. I served the people. That’s what mattered, so that I had great joy there,” she says.
Sister Patty started working with the adults, but one sister who had been in Guatemala before decided to make her in charge of the youth ministry instead because the children, she was told, would help her learn Spanish.
Teaching the youth was fulfilling to her.
“Every Saturday, the youth ministers of all those surrounding barrios came to our village and I worked with them all day. Some of them came Friday [and] stayed overnight. They slept right on the floor of the church,” she says.
“It was a wonderful, transformative part of my life, living in Guatemala,” she adds.
Although her mission work in Guatemala was a joyful experience, it presented a few challenges. Sister Patty contracted hepatitis A and later, amoebic dysentery.
After serving in Guatemala for two years, she suffered a recurrence of hepatitis A, which made the doctor who treated her decide that she should cut her five-year commitment and return to the U.S.
She returned to Mercy by the Sea to recover in 1987, but it was not long before she was asked by the bishop of Norwich to embark on her fourth ministry: spiritual formation for the clergy.
She became the diocesan director of ministry formation for the diocese of Norwich, a position she served “for 10 happy years.” Her role allowed her to form, encourage, and inspire members of the clergy to serve in their own ministries and to reach out to more people.
In 1998, she embarked on her fifth ministry. She became a prison chaplain and began counseling prisoners until 2009. She called her role as prison chaplain “the best mercy ministry of my life.”
She began working at Gates Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Niantic, then moved on to the Brooklyn Correction Institution, a medium-security facility in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Her final work was at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility in Uncasville.
She relates how she felt secure working with the prisoners, never feeling fear and always sensing God’s protection and love. It was this same love that she conveyed to the prisoners, inspiring them to see God’s mercy in their lives.
“Many of them had lost the sense that they had a chance,” she says, “and I talked to them about the God of the second chance, and the God of the third chance, and the God of the 22nd chance.”
Prisoners who had served their time would occasionally meet her by coincidence. Out of respect, she would avert her eyes and allow the other person to approach her first.
On one occasion, a former inmate rushed to her in elation at a Wendy’s restaurant in front of all the other customers.
Another time, a former prisoner approached her after Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Norwich and introduced her to his wife saying, “This is the Sister Patty that I told you saved my life in jail.”
Today, Sister Patty reflects on her ministries with a sense of inner peace, the same inner peace that helped her when she found out that her annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land was canceled and Mercy by the Sea was closed on March 17 due to COVID-19.
“When I was teaching, I always felt like I was giving myself for the students. I always felt that. When I was in Guatemala, I was giving myself for the poor people, for sure…I loved every ministry. You can see I love differently all five,” she says.
“I always felt like a Sister of Mercy. I feel like it’s my real call. It’s more than just the label,” she says. “But I felt it most in the prison because it was most needed there.”
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