Father Thomas Wheeland noted that in a way, his first step toward a priestly vocation can be traced to a brief exchange with Sister Mary Carmella Coene.
One day more than a half-century ago, while attending Elmira Notre Dame High School, Father Wheeland was intent on catching the late bus so as to avoid a long walk home. An arm belonging to Sister Coene halted him and she inquired, “Tommy, have you thought about being a priest?”
“It was either say yes or miss the bus, so I said, ”Well, yeah’ — and made the bus,” Father Wheeland recalled, prompting a laugh from the congregation as he celebrated Sister Coene’s funeral Mass on June 1, 2009. Yet he added that the next morning, he found out an appointment had been scheduled between him and a priest about his vocation.
On a more serious note, Father Wheeland said that Sister Coene can be linked to many Notre Dame alumni who entered priestly and religious life, “inspired by her zest for the Lord and her zest to share that with others.”
That zest permeated Sister Coene’s 82 years as a Sister of Mercy, most of which were spent educating hundreds upon hundreds of Notre Dame students. She died May 28, 2009, at the McAuley Residence of the Mercy Motherhouse in Rochester following a short illness — six months after celebrating her 100th birthday.
Sister Coene was a native of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in the Rochester suburb of Greece. Upon entering the Mercy order in December 1926, she was assigned to take over a third-grade classroom at the former St. Patrick School in Elmira — even though she was only 18 years old and hadn’t yet finished high school.
“I had no idea where Elmira was,” she chuckled during a November 2008 interview with the Catholic Courier for a story on her 100th birthday.
Sister Coene went on to teach over the next 28 years at St. Patrick; Our Lady of Mercy High School, Brighton; Catholic High, Elmira; Holy Family High, Auburn; St. Ann High, Hornell; and St. Mary Elementary, Corning.
She was a founding faculty member when Notre Dame opened its doors in 1955, and her affiliation with the high school never ended. Sister Coene taught full time until 1998 and continued tutoring well into her 90s. Her speciality was science, and she also taught math, typing and bookkeeping. So esteemed was Sister Coene’s service at the high school that a building there bears her name: The Sister Mary Carmella Coene Science Wing was dedicated in 2005 by Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
Sister Coene was well-known for her lively personality coupled with an intense dedication. She set high goals for her students and helped them get there by constantly making herself available for extra help. That included Father Wheeland, who struggled with physics but eventually passed due to the Sunday afternoons Sister Coene set aside to tutor him.
“She never gave up on anyone,” said Father Wheeland, who serves as pastor of Holy Cross Church in Charlotte.
In 2006 Sister Coene moved to the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse. She enjoyed keeping in touch with former students, and last Dec. 18 — three days before her 100th birthday — she returned to Notre Dame for a party in her honor with more than 400 well-wishers in attendance.
Notre Dame was closed June 1 so the school community could travel to Brighton and attend her funeral Mass at the motherhouse’s chapel. A memorial liturgy took place June 2 at Elmira’s St. Mary Southside Church.
Sister Coene is survived by nieces, a nephew, cousins, the Notre Dame community and the Sisters of Mercy. Interment was at Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
Contributions in Sister Coene’s memory may be made to the Sisters of Mercy or Notre Dame High School.