Growing up near Binghamton, New York, Sister Mary Felice never imagined a life devoted to God. Always a strong student, her father encouraged her to become a doctor. But she had grown up dancing and her dream was to dance professionally.
She went to SUNY Brockport to major in dance. But something was missing. She was surprised by how much she missed academic challenge. Perhaps her father had been right.
Sister Mary transferred to SUNY Binghamton as a biology major. At the end of four years, she had four-credits of biochemistry remaining. "I didn't want to go to summer school and then straight into medical school," she recalls. Instead, she decided to take a gap year to finish biochemistry and take other courses she hadn't had time for.
It was during that year that an older priest visited her family's parish to give a retreat. "To be honest, it's not something I normally would have attended," Sister Mary recalls. But she had just been accepted to Upstate and knew her life would soon be consumed by medical school and residency. "I thought perhaps I will never have another chance to do something like this," she says.
The experience would turn out to be life changing. "The priest made such an impression on me," she recalls. "In retrospect, I think that he was so given to God that I could see God's presence in him quite clearly."
In her own prayers, Sister Mary expressed admiration for the priest. While she didn't know exactly what it was about his life that touched her so, she knew she wanted the same for herself.
In response, she says she felt God inviting her to do as the priest had-to give him everything by living a religious vocation. "It was a shock really and I'm not sure I welcomed it, but I couldn't deny how real it seemed and the peace that the idea brought," she says.
In the subsequent months, Sister Mary faced an internal struggle between her desire to follow the example of that priest and things in the world that attracted her. By the time she entered the Upstate College of Medicine, she knew she intended to become religiously affiliated and aspired to a life of missionary work. She thought internal medicine would provide the most valuable foundation, and simultaneous with her medical study, began to research different religious orders. As a third-year student, she chose the Binghamton track for the opportunity to rotate at Lourdes Hospital, run by the Daughters of Charity.
Sister Mary developed a relationship with the hospital administrator, Sister Margaret Tuley, who became a mentor and arranged for her to do rotations at other Daughters of Charity hospitals. During her primary care internal medicine residency at the University of Rochester, Sister Mary lived with the Daughters of Charity sisters there.
After completing residency, she formally joined, becoming the only Daughter in the United States who was also a physician (another joined years later and is still practicing). She spent her postulant year in Bridgeport, Connecticut, then 18 months in seminary. Although she longed to do international mission work, the Daughters of Charity does not allow sisters to work abroad during their first 10 years. Sister Mary returned to Bridgeport, where she worked at St. Vincent's Hospital for five years in the outreach department and helped run a youth group for inner city kids. She worked the next five years as a hospitalist in Troy, New York, where she helped run another youth group.