Gwen Coté has always had exceptional strength of character and the ability to make things happen.

As a 14-year-old teenager, when she realized her parish in northern New York parish needed a Catholic Youth Organization, she decided to start one.

While that’s not something a typical teenager would tackle, Gwen says she learned early responsibility from her family and from working on the family farm.

“If you work the land you have to learn to be responsible,” she says.

She was told she could organize a CYO in her parish, provided that she first attends a diocesan leadership camp.

“That camp truly changed my life,” she says.

In addition to honing her leadership skills, her experience there crystallized her calling to serve God by serving others.

“I thought I would be a missionary, most likely in a foreign county,” she said.

But life took her on a different path.

Thanks to her quick mind that allowed her to skip several grades, Gwen graduated from high school at 16.

At 18, as a junior in college, Gwen followed the call she heard in her heart and entered the Sisters of Mercy.

After earning a Bachelor of Science degree she also completed two masters degrees.

By the time she was 28, Gwen was serving as a high school principal as well as heading a community leadership program.

All her life Gwen has always walked in faith, praying for God to lead her where he wants her to go.

After 30 years as a Sister of Mercy, she discerned it was as a layperson that she could best serve the church and be a better witness to young people.

Sister Gwen Coté became simply Gwen Coté.

“I never left my vows,” she said. “I left the Sisters of Mercy. I don’t regret those 30 years. I had extraordinary life experiences there.

“When you enter religious life it is with blind trust that you are following the call of God, doing what He wants of you,” she said.

While Gwen walked in faith all her life, leaving the convent involved a leap of faith.

“I had no savings, no retirement account. Somehow, I had to plan for the rest of life.

“If you believe God will lead you, you have to step out in faith, believing it will be OK if you follow where He leads you,” she said.

She admits the change was hard in a lot of ways.

But with her educational background and experience, she was given opportunities that allowed her to support herself.

She spent two years as a national consultant and seven years teaching other teachers how to work with international students.

With her enthusiasm and ability, she rose to be vice president of the company.

“But it was draining,” she admits. I traveled all but four days a month.”

She bought a house and was working with a software company when she found her 87-year-old mother could no longer live alone. Again, Gwen had to take a leap of faith, selling her home and coming to live in Punta Gorda to care for her mother.

“It was all based in trust. I knew God would never abandon me,” she says.

During a fateful meeting with Father Jerry Kaywell, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, he saw how Gwen could be of service to the church and its people. He had the confidence in her to make her a pastoral associate.

It’s a decision that has been cheered by many as Gwen works with parish ministries. She has been most effective in giving parish retreats, setting up liturgies, and training Eucharistic ministers, as well as giving classes to help others better understand their faith.

In her role as a spiritual advisor, Gwen is effective in helping others move forward in their faith walk.

She knows from experience that a leap of faith can take you to the exact place where you belong.

Pattie Mihalik is a regular columnist for the Sun. Contact her at newsgirl@comcast.net.

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