Sr. Mechtilde O’Mara at a May 26 farewell party honouring the outgoing ministry director of Faith Connections. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Sr. Mechtilde's passion for teaching served her well at Faith Connections

  • May 30, 2018

Sister’s passion for teaching served her well at Faith Connections

When Sr. Mechtilde O’Mara walks into a room of young people, her eyes are like magnets for the quietest person in the crowd. She beelines in their direction and ushers them into the centre of the room. 

O’Mara’s intuition for youth, making sure everyone feels included, has served her well as ministry director of Faith Connections, the young adult network run by the Sisters of St. Joseph Toronto and Fontbonne Ministries. As she enters retirement after eight years service, the 79-year-old has no specific assignment waiting, but hopes to still be in the company of the people that keep her young. 

“I was one of the people that advocated to have a ministry specifically for young adults, so I was part of it from the very beginning,” said O’Mara, who succeeded Sr. Therese Meunier as ministry director in 2010. “We had to think of how we could keep in touch with that age group whom we saw was not being attended to in the Church.”

O’Mara is a teacher and it’s that training that drives her to seek out service with youth. 

“Everyone who was taught by Sr. Mech (O’Mara) or was formed by her, remember her for her enthusiasm and passion,” said Vanessa Nicholas-Schmidt, former Faith Connections program co-ordinator and among well-wishers who attended a farewell party for O’Mara May 26. “They say she was always a stickler, but she was always kind.”

Before she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto, she was studying for her teaching certificate. 

When she looks back at her life as a young adult, O’Mara likes to say that her 20-year-old self always knew she wanted to be a sister and she knew she wanted to respond totally. But O’Mara said she didn’t rush into it either.

“When I finished high school I thought, well, I guess I’ll go to university. So I went to university and I thought, ‘Should I go now? Well, maybe I’ll get a Master’s degree or something,’ ” she said. 

O’Mara got her Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy at University of Toronto in 1956. A year later, she was studying to become a high school teacher when God’s call began to nag her in the back of her mind. She would acquire her teaching certificate by the end of the school year, so she consulted with her former professor, a Basilian Father, and told him about her dilemma. Should she enter the convent now or should she pursue a profession as a teacher for a while?

“He told me to pray for 15 minutes a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament and pray to have the light to do God’s will and the courage to do it,” she said. “Within the month, I went back to him and said I’ve already gone to see the reverend mother.”

O’Mara entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in September 1957. After about a week, one of the sisters had to take a leave of absence and O’Mara was asked to teach her classes at St. Joseph College School on Wellesley Street.

For two months, she was moved around to fill in for fellow sisters. After Thanksgiving she became a full-time novice for two years. 

O’Mara returned to the academics, teaching at St. Joseph’s High School Islington before becoming associate professor at St. Michael’s College at U of T until 1993. 

She was teaching at St. Augustine’s Seminary when the Sisters were preparing to sell Christie Mansion, the women’s student residence, to Regis College and U of T in 2005. O’Mara wanted to make sure that the students remained connected with the Sisters and their ministry. 

With the help of her fellow sisters and some laypeople, they organized the first Theology on Tap event later that fall. 

“I had a lot of contacts because of my work with the university students so I was the one who invited speakers... and we all went out to look for a suitable pub to meet.”

Since then, Theology on Tap has become a flagship event of the Faith Connections ministry in the Archdiocese of Toronto. Once a month, young adults across the city meet at a local pub to discuss various topics of the faith. O’Mara invites speakers from her network to talk with attendees and answer their questions. 

“We’re trying to help people see how to live their faith, and not just in Church,” she said. “What we have to do in the city of Toronto is give people an experience so that they’ll long for the City of God and want to know how to go about creating that here.”

Since that first event in 2005, Theology on Tap has become a flagship event for the ministry. Theology on Tap is now held simultaneously for the four regions of Toronto where crowds can range from 30 to 130 people per event, in partnership with the Office of Catholic Youth

“I have been coming to Theology on Tap events for many years, almost since the beginning,” said Chris Loben. “I never knew I would have so much fun with nuns in a bar and I have and I’m okay with that.”

O’Mara said the hallmark of Faith Connections’ ministry has always been to remain attentive to the needs of the young adult. 

Program director Kataryna Ryba said anyone who encounters O’Mara remembers her for her joy and warmth. She makes sure everyone who attends an event is welcomed, especially if it’s their first time attending. 

“She just really taught me to pay attention to all the little things,” said Ryba. “When I’m planning things I think about things Sr. Mech would say to me and that really helps me make sure everyone feels welcome and loved.”

Every event, O’Mara talks with individual attendees about what they liked and didn’t like about the event. She asks them what they’d like to learn about next, but always with an ear to what the Pope is saying.

“Well, I’m a teacher, you know, and I’ve learned that people will learn what they want to learn,” said O’Mara. 

There is an inside joke within Faith Connections’ community that O’Mara has taught every important Catholic in Canada. 

“She knows every bishop in Canada, I swear,” Ryba said. “The connections she made in her life, she really used those to create quality, amazing events.”

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