OKLAHOMA CITY – A hundred years ago, most homes didn’t have electricity, the Land Run was fresh in people’s minds and Leona Lucille Marie Toelle was born.
One of eight children, Toelle moved around a lot as a child – embracing a comfort in change that would serve her well later in her life, as she served others. She was born in Missouri to her father George, a farmer, and her mother Ursula. The family would travel to Oklahoma via train and settle, eventually, in Canute, Okla. on a 160-acre farm.
“I would feed and move the cattle and horses,” said Toelle, “I was only about 12. I think the cows had more sense than I did. Oh, heavenly days.”
Toelle’s brown eyes light up as she thinks back to her time with her siblings on the farm.
“I was quite the tom boy,” said Toelle, recalling with a chuckle the time she swung on a barn door and knocked out her front teeth. “I knocked my sister’s teeth out, too, once.” By accident, of course.
Four years later, that farm-earned confidence would send her marching into the kitchen to ask her mother a question she wasn’t expecting. At the young age of 16, Toelle – then a student at Mount Saint Mary – asked if she could join the convent.
“She said, ‘You’re only 16. You’re too young. If you asked me to get married I’d tell you the same thing,’” said Toelle. “My sister was standing in the kitchen, too. She said, ‘Oh, let her go, she’ll be back in two weeks.’”
Toelle’s mother did let her go, but she wasn’t back in two weeks. A year later, after traveling to St. Louis in preparation for her ministry, Toelle pronounced her religious vows as a Sister of Mercy at Mount Saint Mary, where she had graduated from high school.
Now known as Sister Mary Clotilda Toelle, Toelle would spend the next 60-plus years teaching religion, history and government at Catholic schools in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, moving every few years to wherever she was called. She took with her a deep sense of service, her faith, and her cheeky Cockatiel named Gracias, who to Toelle’s delight once told a shushing Sister to, “go to her cage.”
Toelle lives at the convent adjacent to Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City, now, where she enjoys playing Scrabble and cards and assembling complex jigsaw puzzles. Her life is devoted to prayer and dedication as a joyful Sister of Mercy.
Toelle joins a rare section of the population, as a centenarian. The 2010 Census revealed a decline in the number of Oklahomans living to 100. In 2000, 641 Oklahomans were at least 100 years old. In 2010, that number dropped 15 percent, to 546.
Mercy is the sixth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 31 hospitals, more than 200 outpatient facilities, 38,000 co-workers and 1,600 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit www.mercy.net.