WILMINGTON — For Franciscans, living in community is as much a part of their vocation as teaching, caring for the sick or, in Sister Julie McCole’s case, feeding the poor. Sister Julie finds community among the people who work and volunteer at the Emmanuel Dining Room West on Jackson Street, where she has been the director for the past five months, and from the people they serve.
She tries to share more than a meal with the men, women and children who line up each day for breakfast and lunch, about 550 meals a week. She offers a kind word, an encouraging smile.
“I think that’s more important than the food. Simple, simple little things could make or break the day for them. And for me,” she said a few days after Christmas.
Sister Julie entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia 50 years ago out of Notre Dame High School in Moylan, Pa., near her hometown of Springfield. The third of nine children, she said she first knew she had a vocation to religious life in second grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. She used to walk around her house with her sweater wrapped around her head and call herself “Sister Julie.”
“My father thought I would never make it. He didn’t think I had the self-discipline to really survive it, but I entered 50 years ago this year. I’m thrilled to be a Franciscan,” she said.
Her father was the devout, lifelong Catholic, but it was her mother — a Southerner who converted in order to get married — who instilled in her the sense of service that has become her life. As a high school student, Sister Julie would return to the convent at Our Lady of Perpetual Help to help the Franciscans who taught there.
“I got to know the sisters really well,” she said. “I think it was their joyful attitude and also the way they were with one another. It just seemed like there was a real sisterhood there. They received energy from each other through their community life.”
She went into education, mostly in elementary school, but also for a year at St. Mark’s High School. She also served as a director of religious education for several Eastern Shore parishes while living in Easton, Md.
Her work with the poor did not start in Wilmington. Sister Julie previously ministered for four years at Anna’s Place in Chester, Pa., a hospitality house opened by the Franciscans. She feels privileged to be working now at Emmanuel Dining Room.
“They’re all my brothers and sisters,” she said. “I’ve learned so much.”
Sister Julie, who at one time served as the vocations director for the Franciscans, said a number of factors have affected vocations. When she graduated from high school, most opportunities for young women were limited to nursing, teaching, secretarial work or full-time motherhood, all worthy paths.
“Now the sky’s the limit for young women, and many of them also serve in ministry. They can get married and have kids and also be very committed to social justice or to any ministry they feel drawn to. There’s still that real love for service, but they just don’t go for the consecrated life,” she said.
For those who are interested in religious life, she tells them that their relationship with God and other people is very important, and, for Franciscans, a willingness to live in community is crucial.
“I ask them about that,” she said. “Would they like to live in community? Would they like to join other sisters in the ministry?
“We feel that’s the most important thing, even before our ministries. If we get energy from community life, we take it out to everybody that we serve.”
She added that most people joining religious life today already have a college degree and a career path. The Franciscans, she said, encourage their members to work in those areas, unlike decades ago, when sisters were assigned to a ministry.
The congregation puts more emphasis on what she calls “inner authority.” The sisters go before God and ask him what he wants them to do. Still, the leadership has the final say on where a sister goes depending on numbers and needs.
And although their population is shrinking, religious life will not disappear.
“I think there will always be vocations,” Sister Julie said. “There will always be people hear that voice within to serve others.”