Home History of Hymns: "Two Fishermen"

History of Hymns: "Two Fishermen"

"Two Fishermen"
Suzanne Toolan
The Faith We Sing, No. 2101

Suzanne Toolan

Two fishermen, who lived along the Sea of Galilee,
stood by the shore to cast their nets into an ageless sea.
Now Jesus watched them from afar then called them each by name;
it changed their lives, these simple men; they’d never be the same.
‘Leave all things you have and come and follow me.’*


Suzanne Toolan, RSM (Sisters of Mercy), has been composing songs for the church most of her life. On the first Friday of every month, she may be found leading a Taizé evening prayer around the cross in the chapel of Mercy Center, a retreat in Burlingame, Calif.

She has led this prayer for over two decades, not missing a service in more than 20 years.

Born in 1927 in Lansing, Mich., Sr. Toolan recalls in a 2005 article by Tom Burke her desire for ministry. “I can remember when I was a kid, hearing a nun playing the organ,” she said. “I was in the first grade and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be a nun and I’m going to play the organ.’”

When only 17, Sr. Toolan moved to Hollywood where she became a student of Richard Keys Biggs. Following her profession as a Sister of Mercy, she earned a master’s degree in humanities. She taught in high schools, colleges, parishes and seminaries.

Sr. Toolan encourages prayer in all dimensions of life. Her book Canticles and Gathering Prayers (St. Mary’s Press) is a composite of services and canticles.

As a retreat leader, she leads prayer in the manner of the Community of Taizé. Her skills as a composer have enriched Christian prayer for thousands around the world. Her most famous song, “I am the bread of life,” written for Communion, has been translated into more than 20 languages.

Catherine’s Center, a transitional house for women recently released from prison, has honored Sr. Toolan as a musician and humanitarian. The center is a ministry of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Mateo County, and was founded in 2002 by Sr. Toolan and Sr. Marguerite Buchanan.

The women—friends since entering the order just six months apart, some 55 years ago—got the idea for Catherine’s Center through their work at San Quentin and the federal prison in Dublin, where they saw women who wanted to better their lives after prison but were without support once they were released.

They discovered that the St. Vincent de Paul Society had a similar dream of providing help to newly released inmates. Among Sr. Toolan’s favorite memories is when she was helping women at the Dublin prison.

“Part of the prayer is bringing our fears and burdens to the Cross, and it is so inspiring. We pick up the Cross after the service and it is wet with their tears.”

“Two Fishermen” is a ballad about the calling of the disciples by the sea, found in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11; 8:1-3). The song demonstrates Sr. Toolan’s gift for matching an unpretentious, easily learned melody with a narrative that tells the story in simple, straightforward verse.

The final stanza encourages “good Christians, one and all [to] follow Jesus’ way.” Just like the men by the sea, she encourages us to “leave behind what keeps you bound to the trappings of our day.”

The central message of the song is found in the refrain, which centers on Christ’s words to those humble fishermen: “Leave all things you have and come and follow me.” Sr. Toolan heeded this call and obviously has no regrets.

*© 1986 GIA Publications, Inc. www.giamusic.com. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.