Vocation Story of Sister Paula Howard, OSB
When asked about my call to religious life, I always think of it as coming suddenly. I can remember the moment of decision and relive it each year on March 21, the Feast of Saint Benedict. I was a sophomore at Mount St. Scholastica College in 1941. We had been given permission to walk over to Saint Benedict’s church to hear the monks sing Vespers. It was a two mile up-and-down hill trek, but rules were strict in those days, so most of us went, just to go someplace where we might meet the boys from Saint Benedict’s College.
The church was packed. I was seated behind a pillar with a good view of the crowd, and just a glimpse of the robed monks in the pews in the sanctuary. When the chanting of the psalms began the murmur of the crowd quieted. I became lost in another world, mesmerized by the sound waves of the chant and the rhythm of the monk’s rising and bowing for the Gloria Patri at the end of each psalm, as if floating on the waves of a tranquil sea. It occurred to me that this stream of prayer had been flowing, unbroken, since the 5th century.
Events of history flowed through my mind: the sacking of Rome, the chaotic struggles of the barbarians, the growth of the city states, the conquest of the Moors, the rise of the empires of Spain, England, France, the discoveries of new worlds…and this unbroken stream of prayer was binding civilization together through it all. Even the suppression of monasteries, and the rise of Protestantism could not break it. I felt I was glimpsing a part of eternity, and I wanted to be part of it.
From that moment on, there seemed to be no other meaningful future for me. When I returned to the Mount, I asked Sister Imogene, my English teacher and confidant, whether I should tell my parents first or see Mother Lucy, prioress at the time. I saw Mother Lucy and, seeing no reason to delay, fixed the next June as the time to enter. Next day I wrote to my parents to tell them my decision.
The news came as a shock. They were devastated. My mother’s chief lament was that they could no longer give me anything. My father begged me to let them give me a college education first. I saw no need to waste time, when I already knew what I would do. After all, I was eighteen and thought I knew everything. I realize now that I was selfish and blind to the pain I was causing my family. Only my brother seemed to understand and took my side.
Even though the decision seemed sudden, I know now the seed was planted and grew in the home they provided. I grew up in a Catholic family, grounded in the faith of a mother with a heritage of generations of Catholicism in the Rhineland and a father with the characteristic zeal of a convert. We were never needy, but not rich. We were not able to attend Catholic schools, but never missed Mass, had adequate instruction in vacation schools, and the example of my parents and wholesome family living.
A series of coincidences brought me to the Mount. When Sisters Anthony and Theresa Ann came to Great Bend High School, looking for students my senior year, offering full scholarships to Margret Mary Kennedy and me. Four students enrolled; two stayed to become Sisters: Malachy and Paula. My love affair with Benedictine life and learning began. I loved the simplicity of the life, admired the sensibility of the rule and its adaptability to the times, the unpretentiousness of the Sisters. I read authors who were not in public school libraries. I looked forward to my career as a foreign correspondent or a math teacher. That day in March changed my mind.