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Sister Mary Tomlinson

My good friend says I’m dependable, low-maintenance, sensitive and a good traveling companion.

My favorite thing about Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is the Church. I love watching the Sisters assemble for liturgy. It makes me remember that I am in good company and in a community where I am loved. The Church is also the place I made my decision to become a Sister of Providence.

Three things that are sure to make me smile are my granddaughters, watching David Letterman and when a project I’ve worked on is completed.

When I am not at work or involved in ministry, you are most likely to find me in my living room, either reading, crocheting or watching television.

On weekends, I love visiting my granddaughters and getting my household chores done so I can relax.

I am passionate about all the issues surrounding gun violence and gun control.  Gun violence is robbing so many young people the promise of a full life.

The first things that comes to mind when I think of God is creation and the greatest gift to person-kind, Jesus Christ who teaches us everything we need to know about being a responsible participant in creation.


Sister Mary and her granddaughters, from left: Bailey, Cameron, Mia and Samantha.

Did you hear about the little Jewish girls whose grandma is a nun?

It’s not a far-fetched tale. It’s part of the life story of Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Mary Tomlinson.

It’s a story about love and struggle. It’s about endurance and stamina. And there is a strong sense of being called.

An early call in Mary’s life was the call to mother her baby.

She was 20 years old, not married and pregnant. It was the late 1960s and there were few options available to her.

She was realizing that she shouldn’t marry the man she was dating. But she didn’t see any options.

The only other choice she could see was to have the baby and give it up for adoption.

“I was going to keep my baby. So I married the guy,” she said.

“It was a bad marriage from the start, and it stayed a bad marriage.” With an irresponsible and absent husband, Mary knew that full responsibility for supporting and caring for her son, Mark, fell to her.

So both during much of the 12-year marriage and after, she lived as a single, working mother.

On her side was ambition, tenacity and an all-pervading will to care for Mark.

Mary worked her way up in a job at an insurance company in downtown Chicago. She started there as a clerk typist. By the time she left 20 years later, she was a senior systems manager with a department working under her.

“When I was working and coming up in my career, it was the time when people thought women could and should do it all.  Women could have a career and then go home and put dinner on the table, do the shopping and all else it took to run a home and build a career.” She doesn’t think that the best route in hindsight.

She knew the exhaustion and struggle. But love for her son motivated her on day after day.

Another calling
Then came another nudging. After 15 years away, Mary found her way back to the Catholic Church.

She felt what she described as some “rumblings” within.

Sister of Providence Marilyn Kofler worked in her parish. The two women would get together about once a month. Mary had much to catch up on and Sister Marilyn was a great resource.


As part of her ministry as development director for Guerin Outreach Ministries, Sister Mary Tomlinson, left, meets with Penny Sullivan, director of Educational/Family Services in West Terre Haute.

“The notion of becoming a sister, it happened very suddenly for me. I was at a 7:30 a.m. Mass. It was Sunday morning and I’m in church. And I had kind of a reflection where I saw an image of myself walking down an aisle to take final vows. (I had recently read an article about a woman who became a sister when she was older.) When I saw myself like that, I laughed out loud right there in the 7:30 Mass that has very limited attendance.”

Mary came back and told Sister Marilyn that she was wondering if she should join a religious community. Sister Marilyn’s response: “It’s about time.”

Mary was shocked. Sister Marilyn had never mentioned she saw this in her. But when she later invited Mary to a “come and see” weekend with the Sisters of Providence, Mary attended. She concluded, much to her wonder, that she was being called there.

Next was telling her son. Mark was a sophomore in college. His response? “I won’t let you.”

“So I thought, well, I guess I’m not doing this then,” she said.

“But it still stayed.” Mary knew she couldn’t enter until Mark was out of college since she was still supporting him. So she let the idea rest.

“About a year later, Mark and I were emptying the groceries from the car and bringing them upstairs. And he said to me, ‘Well you can do it, but I’ll never call you Sister.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not your sister. You better call me Mom,’” Sister Mary remembers.

Sister Mom
Mary entered the Sisters of Providence at age 43.

“It’s been quite a journey.”

Her early years in community were not without struggle.

“It’s not for the faint of heart. The first three years are pretty difficult. Your whole identity undergoes a change from what you were to becoming a Sister of Providence,” Sister Mary recalls.

She struggled for some time with feelings of not fitting in.

“I came to believe I fit when I really came to the realization that I’m loved in this community.”

“I think the sisters, all of us, really do love one another and we are kind and giving to one another. Now, there are a couple of sisters who rub me the wrong way, and I’m sure that’s true for all of us. But we still embrace the call to love one another.”

Today Sister Mary ministers as development director for Guerin Outreach Ministries. She researches and writes grants and offers fundraising support to three ministries that provide direct services to people in need, including tutoring and GED preparation, English as a second language instruction and bi-lingual counseling.

She works from her home-base in Chicago, just 20 minutes away from her son, his wife Stephanie and her much-loved granddaughters Cameron, Samantha, Bailey and Mia. She is at their house visiting every chance she gets.

Her daughter-in-law is Jewish and is raising her daughters as such. Sister Mary enjoys participating in their beautiful Seder meal on Passover and in other special occasions.

“I respect that Stephanie is nurturing her faith with the girls. I think different faith traditions can exist in a family,” she said.

Right now the girls are too young to understand that grandma is a Catholic sister. But when they do catch on, it could provide an interesting fun fact. There aren’t many kids who can say their grandma is a nun.

Hear Sister Mary tell her story in her own words in the video clips here.

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Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda is a Providence Associate of the Sisters of Providence and a staff member in their Advancement Services office. Amy is a 1998 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She currently manages the SP publication HOPE and works on marketing support for Providence Associates, new membership and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

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  1. Avatar Karla Wallenda on February 21, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Mrs./Sr. Mary Tomlinson –

    How is it that you can be married, have a child and be divorced; and then become a Catholic sister while divorced Catholics are not even allowed to receive the sacrament of Communion?

    • Amy Miranda Amy Miranda on February 21, 2016 at 6:13 pm

      Hi Karla,

      If a divorced woman wants to become a sister in the Catholic Church, she must first go through a similar process she would have to go through if she wanted to remarry. It would require an annulment, which basically is a study the church does to determine if both parties understood the full sacramental nature of marriage and freely entered into the union understanding that sacramentality. If it is determined that either or both parties was not able to understand and enter into the full covenant of marriage, they are granted an annulment and able to function as any other single person, either re-marrying or entering religious life. And just as a clarification, a divorced Catholic is still allowed to go to Communion after a divorce. It is only if the person remarries without first getting an annulment that they are not allowed to receive Communion. Thanks for your question!


  2. Avatar Penny Finerty on January 28, 2022 at 6:08 pm

    Wishing all the best. God bless you.

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