March 29, 2016

Bread of Life & Living Water


Image of Suzanne Toolan rsm by Michael Collopy

Editor: It's 50 years this year (1966) since Suzanne Toolan rsm (Americas), an internationally known composer of liturgical music and a prominent American spokesperson for the music and prayer of the ecumenical community of Taizé, wrote the much loved communion hymn 'I Am the Bread of Life'  for a Eucharistic celebration organised by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Every busy person who has said ‘yes’ to yet another request and every teacher will resonate with this scene: with the deadline looming, Sr Suzanne worked on the song during a free period in an unoccupied room next to the infirmary in Mercy High School, Burlingame, California where she taught Related Arts, Fine Arts and Religion and conducted the school chorale.

'When the bell rang for the next class I decided I didn’t like the music,' Sr Suzanne said, 'so I tore it up and threw it in the waste-paper basket. As I left my classroom, a freshman girl [first year high school student] came out and said, “What was that?  It was beautiful!”  I went back into my classroom, took the manuscript out of the basket and taped it together and it has had a life of its own ever since.'

When asked about the reason for its popularity, Sr Suzanne replied, 'I could never figure out how the hymn became popular. I know in our Roman Catholic tradition it came at the beginning of our use of the vernacular and we simply didn’t have much to sing in our own language.  But I think it is because the message of resurrection is so strong in these words of Jesus and we so need that message of hope.  I am always touched when people tell me that at the funeral of a mother, father or friend, these sung words of Jesus gave them consolation.  Then I know the hymn has done its work.'

Translated into more than 20 languages and performed all over the world, 'I Am the Bread of Life'  features in many of our Catholic hymnals, as well as in the official hymnbooks of the Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches.

In recent days the Mercy world has gathered around another of Sr Suzanne's hymns. 'Living water' is the guiding track for Works of Mercy 6: To Give Drink to the Thirsty, one of the six Stations of Mercy creatively prepared for our shared reflection by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

You who are thirsty, come to the water;

... come now and drink

As we rejoice in these Easter days, let us take up the gift of that invitation.

Messages to: Suzanne Toolan rsm

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