Teaching music in Jerusalem an extension of Mercy sister's ministry

Mercy Sr. Mary Gomolka with Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Mercy Sr. Mary Gomolka
Profession: Sister of Mercy
Lives in: Watchung, N.J.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted before the start of the current conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Sr. Camille: Mary, during our Mercy Convocation in Pennsylvania in July, you shared information about one of your ministerial experiences in a faraway place. Please describe it and tell us how it came about.

Gomolka: At the end of the school year in 2011, I reasoned that teaching full time was no longer the best thing for me to do. I requested time and resources from the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy of the Mid-Atlantic Community to spend three months at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, participating in a renewal/study/Scripture program and to remain there as a volunteer in whatever ministry I could be helpful. Permission was granted, visa was arranged, doctor's testimony was secured, and then contact was made with Bishop [William] Shomali in Jerusalem. He directed me to work with the children cared for by the Missionary Sisters. So after the three-month sabbatical program at Tantur, which is an ecumenical institute with ties to Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., I moved in with five sisters, 23 children and a few volunteers.

A few weeks later, a group of seminarians arrived to provide a Christmas party for the children. At this time, I met a seminarian, originally from California, who explained that there was a need for a music teacher at the seminary. I showed an interest and a month later was interviewed by the rector of the seminary. I began going to the seminary four days a week, giving a weekly piano lesson to each major seminarian and helping to direct and accompany choral training, with the added skills of two seminary professors. I continued to live with the sisters and children until May, when I returned to New Jersey.

What returned you to Jerusalem?

In the early fall of 2012, a request came from the seminary to continue teaching. A permanent resident visa was secured, and I returned in November for the following eight months. I was a part of the seminary family of priests, minor and major seminarians, three Sisters of Mercy from Italy, lay men and women teachers, and staff. Many visiting tourists, pilgrims and clergy provided a wealth of intermingling of cultures, languages and stories. I remained until the end of June for two priestly ordinations. It was an honor to play the organ in various churches and basilicas and to be part of the music as provided by the rich sounds of the seminarian choir.

What gifts did you have to bring to this ministry?

I have always had a desire to share my musical talents with others. I enjoy a capacity for seeing the potential for peace and good in others and the ways in which music can move that forward. I am enlivened by contacts with those of diverse cultures and faiths and seek ways to share my faith experiences.

What graces or insights did you gain from it?

Sensing a more intimate connection to the Divine has come about through the immense trust and confidence in Divine Providence that was necessary to continue for a lengthy time in a situation far away from home. Insights into the daily challenges of the Palestinians and the Israelis constantly presented themselves through conversations, meetings, and working situations. I was deeply impressed by their strong faith in facing life filled with uncertainties, tensions, deprivations and fears.

Did anything in your earlier experiences prepare you for this one?

I had made several trips to the Holy Land as part of study tours with Seton Hall University of South Orange, N.J., guided and inspired by Dominican Sr. Rose Thering. Sister Rose's passion is revealed in a documentary of her life and work in Jewish-Christian relations.

Who were your collaborators?

The Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community sponsored my initial journey, which was subsequently furthered by the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. It was a deacon and his wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Fox from Texas, who forwarded my intent to do volunteer work in the Holy Land. And Mercy Sr. Caritas Kennedy in Baltimore, who worked for justice for Tent of Nations, led me to Bishop Shomali of Jerusalem. It was Bishop Shomali who introduced me to the Missionary Sisters from Argentina. These sisters cared for disabled children in Bethlehem. While being of some help there, I was told of the need for a music teacher at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary. After a meeting with the rector and assistant, I began teaching music there four times a week. The next year, I returned for eight more months and continued teaching while residing as a guest in the seminary. My teaching involved giving piano lessons, music theory, conducting choir rehearsals and playing the organ. Two of the seminary professors also worked with me since much of the music was Arabic chant, new to me.

Is there a specific, lasting memory you can share with us?

It was the day that two young men were ordained priests. The year before, there had been no ordinations, so this was so special for the Christians, and their joy knew no bounds. After the ordination, the new priest was placed on a chair and raised high by the other young men and carried through the streets with dancing and singing. Traffic was halted and processions of chanting and singing crowds followed. While thousands of Christians have left the Holy Land for other countries, those who remain rejoice in their faith and continue to be the living stones in the land of our Lord.

Before this, where and how did you serve others?

I was an educator in New Jersey, serving Sacred Heart School, South Plainfield; St. James School in Woodbridge; and St. Mary Academy and Georgian Court University in Lakewood before coming to Mount Saint Mary Academy in Watchung as music department head and choral conductor.

What was most satisfying?

Providing the ways and means of developing singing voices, watching students find pleasure in lifting voices and hearts in prayer and praise of God. This is truly a gift for which I am most grateful.

Where and with whom did you grow up? Please say something about your childhood.

My father came to this country from Poland as a little boy and became an artist working in New York City. He gave me my love of music and artistic expression. From my saintly mother, I received the wisdom to look at life as it really is. Together, they passed on to me and my five siblings an unshakeable faith and the will to always do good. My brothers and sisters surrounded me with love and care.

Did you have role models, heroes or heroines?

I took the name of Theresa for confirmation, intrigued with the life of the "little flower" who showed us an easy way to love God. As a youngster, I would read Maryknoll magazines and cry because I was so touched and impressed at the beauty of those generous missionaries

What brought you to the Sisters of Mercy?

The Sisters of Mercy were my teachers in high school. When I sensed that a calling to a religious community was on my mind and in my heart, they were ready to encourage and help me find the way.

How do you pray?

Sometimes my prayer is intense, vocal or silent, and at times I just wait for God to talk to me. I find great food for prayer and much comfort and inspiration in the psalms, and of course the Mass is the greatest of all prayers.

What is your image of God?

God is every man, woman and child, for "what you do unto others you do unto me," but Jesus, the son of God, walks with me as my friend, savior, confidant, treasure beyond words.

Do you have a favorite Scripture passage or Gospel story?

I am especially attracted to the gift of the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord gave us the beatitudes.

Why does this one appeal to you?

The beatitudes are like the road map that we need in traveling the path to heaven. They place demands on us, over and above the Ten Commandments, but give great rewards if lived, even in this life.

Does this passage impact your life or relationships?

Meditating on the beatitudes provides reassurances and guidance that can be used in daily life. In a way ,they serve as a spiritual director. You can't go wrong if you listen to our Lord's perfect advice to be poor in spirit, and peacemakers, etc.

When, in your opinion, is our church most effective?

We are the church, all who have been baptized -- and when we live the life of Christ, we will draw others into peace and charity.

What is its greatest gift to the world?

Faith, hope and love. I would say faith in a living and personal God, hope in the joys of serving this loving God, and love that comes from God to us and through us to others.

What changes would you like to see in it?

Again, since we are the church, I would like to see all take steps in their lives to unite to make life better for the poor and suffering while at the same time fearlessly approach the living God so as to be filled with love and grace.

Have you unfulfilled dreams?

Oh, yes. I dream of the day when war will be no more, when selfish aims will perish, and all will live in harmony. I pray for the day when all will know the joys of children of God and will have time to appreciate the beauties of life and all creation.

What makes you happy?

Beauty as an expression of God's countless attributes and as seen in people and nature, as well as in creative works of art by artisans, musicians and builders.

What else would you like us to know?

Religious life for women is such a marvelous undertaking that God's unique providence and wisdom has provided as a vehicle for living with purpose and conviction. I thank God for this gift and encourage anyone who may be hearing whispers of invitation to follow this direction.

Thank you, Mary, for your service to God's people here and in faraway places.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here