Robyn Lee loved the life she was living. She had everything a young person could want—a career in journalism, money, dates, a car, a house and summer trips to Europe. But she wanted more.
“The dream life wasn’t enough,” she says. “I had it all, but something was missing. There was a recognition of being called.”
As managing editor of Catholic Match Institute, she was helping Catholics navigate the singles life and prepare for marriage. But she sometimes wondered—while she was dating and attending singles conferences—when she would find the right match. Then, she found the perfect match. His name was Jesus.
This month, Sr. Mary Mercy Lee is renewing her temporary vows for three more years as a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.
Sister, who also held editorial positions at National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and Faith & Family magazine, now teaches theology at St. Paul High School in Bristol and lives at the John Lateran Center in Meriden with other sisters in formation.
When she looks back on her life, she realizes that all along the way, God was directing her to the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.
“Starting with Mass with my family, the love for the Eucharist was instilled in me during childhood and into adulthood,” she says. “It was like God called me to this community. The Eucharist is the center. St. Francis says it is the pouring out of our God. That our all-powerful God would hide himself under an ordinary piece of bread shows his humility.”
The seeds of her vocation had been planted during childhood, beginning with her home life and the example of her parents. Every Saturday, her mother took four of her children, including Robyn,10, to Eucharistic Adoration at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury.
The youngest daughter in a family of six girls and one boy, Sister grew up in Cheshire and went to St. Bridget of Sweden Parish.
“Vocations are born in the home, and my parents, Maryalyce and Bob, provided a culture that was such a beautiful domestic church,” she says. “We went to Mass every Sunday. My mom could have a baby on Friday, and we would be in church on Sunday.”
Sister attended Mary Immaculate Academy in New Britain, where she was “an active student and social butterfly.”
“I was in drama and choir, and I liked sports,” she recalled. “I played girls basketball and girls softball, soccer with the boys team, and a few games with the boys baseball team.”
After graduating in 1998, she began studies at Christendom College in Virginia, where she majored in philosophy.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the faith,” she says. “I just took it for granted that I had this beautiful culture around me, but at Christendom it was time to make it my own.”
She started attending daily Mass, and as her desire for the Eucharist increased, her spiritual life deepened.
Quoting the foundress of her community, Mother Rosemae Pender, she said, “You could be distracted at adoration and even fall asleep but just like when you’re at the beach, the sun still gets you. Being in the presence of the Eucharist changes you.”
After graduation, she took a job as editorial assistant at the National Catholic Register and eventually was named editor of Faith & Family magazine. When it was sold, she stayed on at the Register until a position opened up for editor at Catholic Digest.
Then in 2010, at 30 years old, she was named managing editor of Catholic Match Institute, where she was responsible for developing resources and educational materials to help couples preparing for marriage and single Catholics who are dating.
“I worked from home. I made good money and I had my own car,” she said. “And every summer I took a trip to Europe.”
At one point, she had to coordinate an essay contest on the topic “How do you discern if you are called to the married life?”
“I had a crisis about what that meant, and I wondered if I could judge the contest fairly,” she said. “I had to ask myself if I could even answer that question. Although I knew I wanted to be married and have a bunch of kids, I wondered whether I was called to the married life.”
Plus, she couldn’t understand why—if she was attending Catholic singles conferences and going on dates—she hadn’t met “The One.”
“I did know a guy I thought I might marry, but we broke it off,” she said. “And I found myself asking, ‘What am I supposed to be doing with my life?’”
During college, she had considered the possibility of a religious vocation, and a family friend, Father Paul Check, the former rector of St. John Fisher Seminary, told her that if she had the slightest inkling of a vocation, she should look into it. However, after exploring a few religious orders, she didn’t think it was meant for her.
To prepare herself to judge the essay contest, she asked friends and family members, including her five married sisters, how they knew they were called to the married life.
“I listened to their stories and got different answers. A lot of people said, ‘Well, you just know.’ Hearing that was so dissatisfying,” she said.
At the time, she was doing graduate studies at Holy Apostles Seminary and taking a course in the New Evangelization taught by Sr. Mary Anne Linder FSE, who invited her to an advent series of Masses and talks at the Franciscan chapel.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “That’s where it began for me. I thought, ‘Wow, these sisters really love the Church and the Eucharist.’”
Sister Mary Anne continued to invite Robyn to events.
“Through the liturgies, my attraction to the sisters continued to grow,” she said.
When she finally went on a vocations retreat, she asked Sister Barbara Johnson, the vicar general, “How do you know if you have a vocation?” And she responded, “You can sit on the side of the pool and wonder if the water is cold…or you can jump in.”
“Her story was important for my vocation because I wanted to know that instant if it was God’s will for me to make final vows,” she said. “God was speaking through her, saying, ‘You don’t need to know the whole path. I am going to show you the next step’…and that next step was to accept pre-postulancy.”
At one point, the co-foundress Mother Shaun Vergauwen said to her, “You are really living the dream life. Why would you want to give that up?”
“I remember thinking, ‘Yes, I do have it all, but is there something more?’ I had a realization that the dream life wasn’t enough and that I was being called,” she said. But there was a lot she had to sort out, especially since she owned a house and had a publishing business with several clients.
During her year of pre-postulancy, she wore the Franciscan brown tunic while attending Catholic Match events and working as managing editor. In addition, the other publications she edited—Catholic Digest and Catechist magazine—were wondering whether they could put their faith in her or should find someone else.
“I reached a point where I said, ‘It’s time for me to let all this go,’” she recalled.
And she did. In 2016, during the Year of Mercy, she entered the novitiate and was given the name Sister Mary Mercy Lee by Mother Shaun.
“How special it was that I became a novice during the Year of Mercy,” she says. “Even before I entered the community, my family and I had a great devotion to Divine Mercy.”
She also believes God led her to the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.
“All through my life, the love of the Eucharist was instilled in me,” she says. “It was like God called me to this community because the Eucharist is all about love and learning to pour it out like our God does.”
Looking back, she can see the work of God in her life and believes that when we allow ourselves to surrender to God’s will, we discover the surprises he has in store for us.
“For me, the remarkable thing is that he could call me—a person who has made lots of mistakes—to be uniquely chosen to be a Bride of Christ,” Sister Mary Mercy said. “The lesson is the same for all of us. If we allow God to enter our hearts, we can do bigger things than we could ever imagine. We are broken vessels, and God chooses to shine through those broken vessels. He chooses us to be his hands and feet…and the way we do that is by being nourished in the Eucharist.”
By Joe Pisani