Emma Llewellyn takes great delight in saying her ‘Mercy story’ started at birth when she was born at the Mercy Hospital in East Melbourne. Having taken first vows with the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea (ISMAPNG) in January 2020, the 37-year-old marked her second significant milestone in November last year, when she renewed her vows. Emma is still officially in the process of initial formation and discernment towards making her final vows in the next few years, but already she feels ‘completely at home with the Sisters’.

Emma can ‘pinpoint the exact moment’ that she felt a deep call within her heart to religious life. She was 18 and had recently completed her studies at Sacred Heart Secondary College in Kyneton, a small town to the north of Melbourne—the school was run by the Sisters of Mercy. She’d decided to study teaching at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, but also had ‘a nagging feeling’ about a call to religious life.

‘There was certainly something coming from a deep place, even at that young age, and even though I didn’t fully understand it,’ she says. ‘I was dating and doing all the normal things at the time, but I still made initial enquiries about religious life.’

She was advised to complete her university studies, to get experience in teaching and to travel before making such a commitment. So Emma travelled to London, taught, dated and ‘lived the life’. Through it all, she was still discerning her deeper call. Ten years later, though, when she returned to Australia, aged 28, she formally heeded that call and started the process to enter religious life.

When deciding ‘who’ to join, Emma says her decision to enquire with ISMAPNG was partly due to being educated by the sisters both at secondary school and at university. She’d spent time with other religious women, too, as part of her education and in her working life, but ultimately, it came down to ‘taking the time to really pray about it and discern where I felt most at home’.

Emma lived independently and taught at Emmanuel College in Melbourne’s western suburbs, but during this time of ‘the enquiry phase’, she started spending more time with the sisters, praying with them and joining them for meals and social gatherings. During the two years of candidacy (the novitiate program), she lived in community with the sisters, undertaking a more intense period of prayer, discernment and study. And though she’s worked mainly in education, it was a time of accompanying the sisters in different ministries and experiences. By the end of her candidacy, Emma felt confirmed in her decision and took steps to take her first vows: ‘Ultimately, for me, I felt most at home with the Sisters of Mercy after spending time with them.’

Emma is no stranger to living among strong women of faith. Growing up in a ‘traditional Catholic family’, she attended Mass every Sunday with her parents and family—Emma is the eldest of four (with a brother and sisters who are twins). She says her mother and Nanna were the ‘greatest spiritual influences’ in her life. Her Nanna prayed the Rosary every day and was very active in the local parish. Now, as a Sister of Mercy, she continues ‘to be surrounded by strong, faith-filled women who are a source of inspiration’ in her life.

I'm still growing into the life of being a sister, but the highlight for me has been being surrounded by such women of wisdom and faith, and who have contributed in so many ways. We are very blessed.

During these two years of candidacy (following her first vows), she has lived in community with the sisters, undertaking a more intense period of prayer, discernment and study. And though she’s worked mainly in education, it has also been a time of trying out different ministries.

‘One of the great things about being a Sister of Mercy is there are lots of different ways of being mercy in the world,’ she says. ‘Our traditional ministries have been education, health, counselling, parish work and advocacy, but really, and even looking forward to the future, it’s where we are called to be. We are called to respond to the needs of the time as our founder Catherine McAuley did.

‘In her time, Catherine was responding to the needs of the poor in Dublin, Ireland, particularly women and children, in ways to empower them to better their own lives, and to bring themselves out of poverty through education, health and social welfare. We are still following that call and mission of Catherine McAuley, but in our own context, here in Australia, as well as in other places around the world.’

This year, Emma is taking a break from full-time ministry in order to engage in full-time study at Catholic Theological College (part of the University of Divinity) in Melbourne, completing a Master of Education and Theology. She says doing this supports both her ministry and initial formation as a sister. ‘It’s the best of both worlds,’ she says.

As a vowed Mercy Sister, I am open to listening and discerning, and ultimately serving where the needs might be. I feel my talents are in education in terms of supporting, particularly, young people in their journeys—academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. And obviously in the context of faith development, working in Catholic education. Being involved at various levels through teaching and leadership has always been a passion of mine, even before I entered religious life.

‘It’s different though, now, as a Sister of Mercy. I'm still in education, but as a vowed consecrated woman, it adds another element of being a witness to the faith, to the mission, and to this counter-cultural way of life.’

Emma hopes she can be a source of inspiration, love and mercy to those she encounters, especially younger people on their journey of faith. Her heart and soul are fuelled by prayer (both personal and communal), by her companion sisters in community, by Mass and the Eucharist, and by her daily ministry of walking alongside others, being a witness of God’s love. She is inspired by the words of Catherine McAuley, who said, ‘We should be as shining lamps, giving light to all around us’, and by Jesus’ promise in John 10:10: ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’

‘God invites us to embrace opportunities and to give it your all,’ says Emma.

‘Thinking about this in the context of Catholic education, that’s what I try to instil in the young people I work with, offering them hope, encouraging them, and empowering them really to do their best, and to be their best selves, wherever that takes them. We're there to support and nourish them and their faith and their development, wherever it takes them in life.’

It’s also the philosophy that Emma has taken to her own heart in following the call to become a vowed Sister of Mercy.

This is the best way to live my life, where I feel most at home, and where I find a great sense of peace and joy. It’s like when you meet the love of your life and you feel that inner love and peace. This is where I find I can live life to the full.

Emma Llewellyn took first vows with the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea (ISMAPNG) on 18 January 2022 in Ballarat, Victoria. She renewed her vows on 26 November 2022 in Perth, Western Australia. While still in initial formation and discernment, Emma says she’s ‘on the right track’ and ‘not going anywhere’. Emma can apply to take her final vows with ISMAPNG within the next three years.

Please keep Emma in your prayers.