Mary Kay McNelis, SSJ

“In contemplative prayer, we seek to become the person we are
called to be not by thinking about God, but by being with God.”
Dom John Main

In the early 1980s, Sister Mary Katharine (Mary Kay) McNelis, SSJ, read Word into Silence, a book by Dom John Main. The practice of Christian meditation first began to transform her lifelong faith journey and her ministry to adults. 

Her strong interest in the Christian meditation movement led her to establish a local chapter of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) and a poustinia, or hermitage, beginning in 1999. 

Sister Mary Kay, formerly Sister Carmelita, was educated in Erie at St.Andrew School, Villa Maria Academy and Villa Maria College. She went on to receive a master’s degree in English at John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio. Initially, Sister Mary Kay spent more than 20 years teaching. Ten of those years were spent at Villa Maria Academy. Other teaching assignments were at St. Joseph’s Home for Children, St. John the Baptist and St. Peter Cathedral schools, all in Erie; St. Brigid School and St. Agatha High School, both in Meadville; and St. Bernard High School in Bradford.

Sister Mary Kay was director of religious education at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, Mercer, and at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, Erie. She also served as director of religious education in Fort Dix, N.J., and Fort Riley, Kan. She was a consultant in the Office of Christian Formation, Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio; and was pastoral minister at Our Lady of Peace, Erie, and St. Michael Church, Penn Yan, N.Y.

For 10 years, Sister Mary Kay taught Christian meditation at the Sisters of St. Joseph Community Living Center and at the hermitage she founded, as well as at numerous other venues. Following retirement, she volunteered as a Eucharistic minister at Pleasant Ridge West and Great Lakes Hospice, and as a teacher at Stairways Behavioral Health. She also planned a meditation for a children’s program in diocesan schools. 

In her later years, she was a student of integral spirituality, evolution of consciousness, and contemplative prayer and living. Sister Mary Kay enjoyed involvement with the World Community for Christian Meditation and attended seminars around the world. She loved sharing spirituality and prayer with anyone who desired a greater intimacy with God. “I need to pray, to meditate, to keep close to Christ,” she says.

“I need to do his will. All these exercises keep me on track, animate my daily journey. How will my love grow to closer union and to happiness?” 

It was after a high school dance when Sister Mary Kay recalls being struck by a thought that changed the course of her life: “Is this all there is?” That question led her to a religious vocation. Her relationship with Christ is what has kept her answering the call for the past 70 years. 

“I know he has loved me and guided me for 87 years, and will lead me home,” she says. “I wanted to walk through life with Christ, moving among his people, drawing them to unity and peace.”