Sister celebrates 75 years of monastic life

Sister Barbara Ann Mayer, OSB

Women religious tend to live longer and retain their vitality by keeping active as long as they can.

They also have a lot of wisdom to share. At 95, Sister Paula Howard is the fifth oldest member of Mount St. Scholastica. She has been a teacher, administrator, writer, poet, musician and iconographer. She has enjoyed a full life, she says, and is still able to write icons (a form of religious art that is always referred to as “written” rather than “drawn”) as she has been doing the past 17 years.

“I’ve written close to 250 icons since I began,” she said. “When I retired in 2000, they asked me what I wanted to do. I had always wanted to paint so I took a workshop at Sophia Center and began to write icons of saints. In the beginning I copied the classics, but later I developed my own style. It has been enriching to learn about the history of iconography and hear from people all over the world.”

Sister Paula says she has enjoyed all her ministries although she never chose any of them. Opportunities opened up and she was asked to respond to them. That’s how she began teaching at Bethlehem University in the Holy Land in 1979. Sister Regina Hansen, who had been teaching and chairing the English department there for three years, asked Sister Paula to join her. After Sister Regina returned to the States, Sister Paula stayed on eight years, serving as registrar the last six years.

“I traveled all over the Holy Land and got to know the people and experience the tension between the Palestinians and Israelis,” she said. “Some of our students at the university were arrested and tortured for information by the Israeli soldiers. We often heard gunshots outside the university, and at least once inside, and we ourselves were often threatened, sometimes suffering from tear gas.”

She was principal of the Mount Academy for seven and a half years, having earlier taught English, speech, math and religion there. Several of her students became Mount sisters. She also enjoyed her time at Donnelly College in Kansas City as assistant to the school’s president.

For the Mount’s 2013 sesquicentennial, Sister Paula was asked to write a history of the Mount from 1965 to 2013, updating Sister Mary Faith Schuster’s early history “The Meaning of the Mountain.” She spent hours combing the archives for historical data using chronicles, committee minutes, newspaper clippings, newsletters, letters, and photos. The book was entitled “Monastic Springs” and covers the years of monastic transition following Vatican II.

“When I entered the convent after my sophomore year at Mount St. Scholastica College at 18, I thought I knew everything,” Sister Paula said. She found out she had a lot to learn. “But it has been a good life, mainly because of the people I got to know during my 75 years of religious life.”

Her philosophy of life is to take things in stride. “Vatican II changes never bothered me,” she said. “It wasn’t hard for me to move from mission life to the Mount, or from the monastery to Dooley Center. I just go with the flow,” she said, smiling. Sister Paula doesn’t worry about the future. “You have to live in the present,” she says. “You can’t change the past and you can’t know the future. Now is all we have.”

The sisters and invited guests will gather for Sunday Mass in Dooley Center’s St. Lucy Chapel on February 11, at which Sister Paula will renew the profession she made 75 years ago, and she will be honored at a small reception later that day.