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I Am the Bread of Life

posted Apr 5, 2014, 6:05 PM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated May 28, 2014, 9:28 AM ]
Suzanne Toolan was already an organist and pianist when she joined the Mercy Sisters. While still a novice, she began teaching choir at Mercy High School. When the Mass switched away from Latin after Vatican II, she tried composing hymns Catholics could sing in English. She credits a seminarian with popularizing her music. “He would come to our convent on Saturdays, and he began to hear some of my things and take them back to the seminary. And that’s how most of my songs got out.” 

In 1966 she was asked to write a song for a music educators’ conference. With the deadline looming, she “worked on it at school, and I tore it up. I thought, ‘This will not do,’ ” Sr. Toolan said. “And this girl came out of the infirmary and said, ‘What was that? That was beautiful!’ So I Scotch-taped it up.”

That sick little schoolgirl saved I Am the Bread of Life. And today, communities around the world, representing many denominations, sing it in 25 different languages.

On her 80th birthday, Sr. Toolan published her memoir, also titled I Am the Bread of Life. It tells the surprising story behind her most famous composition, the story of her ministry and offers her insights on ritual, silence, music and prayer.

She is aware that some don’t care for the song, but she takes criticism in stride, wondering herself about its popularity. “It’s a hymn that really shouldn’t work for the congregation. It’s too low. It’s too high. I often ask myself: Why does it work so well, then? I think it’s the scripture. The scripture is so strong with its hope-filled refrain: And I will raise you up on the last day.”