Sister Paula Modaff
Years in the Congregation: 47 years
My best friend says I’m: indispensable.
“Little Paula Modaff in Rome.” Sister Paula Modaff the high school teacher. Sister Paula Modaff the student, studying Spanish and Latin American Literature in Mexico. Sister Paula Modaff the paralegal. Sister Paula Modaff the canon lawyer. Sister Paula Modaff the hospital chaplain.
When she entered the Sisters of Providence 47 years ago, her mother found great difficulty in “letting go” of Paula so her daughter could join a religious community. “She could not understand how such a normal, beautiful, red-blooded person could do it. She said to me, ‘Well, Paula, if you can stand the same thing day after day, the routine, never anything different, then go ahead.’”
“I kept writing to her from the novitiate and saying, ‘Well, we haven’t started the routine yet, but I’m sure we will. Finally, after two years, I stopped writing it because it was just something different all the time and I just loved it. After I was in, she was nothing but supportive,” Sister Paula said. Her journey has been challenging and exciting.
“My students kept asking me, ‘Don’t you ever get bored?’ Oh, please, oh, please, just five minutes of boredom. I don’t care where, any time. Just give me five minutes to be bored. My life is so full. There is never enough time to do all the things I would like to do. I have never been bored in my whole life,” she said.
Sister Paula grew up in Aurora, Ill., about 40 miles south of Chicago. She says she knew from first grade on she wanted to be a sister. “When my father registered me for the first grade at St. Mary School in Aurora, from that day on, the first time I met a sister or saw a sister, I knew I wanted to be a sister. I never lost that,” she said.
What made such an impression?
“I would see the sisters together at recess. All their little caps would be huddled together and they would be laughing. I helped the sisters after school. I helped them in the church in the sacristy,” she said.
Her personal attachment reached a very spiritual level at an early age.
“When my father registered me for first grade, I remember being in church for the very first time with him. He was pointing to the tabernacle. He said, ‘Look, there’s Jesus.’ And all I could see were the veils of the sisters. In my heart I said, ‘When I get big, I want to be like Jesus.’ That’s when I came home and announced to my mother that I wanted to be a sister.”
And that’s when opportunity began to blossom for Sister Paula.
She spent about 25 years as a high school teacher, instructing students mostly in Spanish, English and religion. Mixed in with her classroom years, she spent about five years at the House of Prayer at Saint Mary-of-the- Woods before becoming a paralegal for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
A priest there did some heavy-duty convincing to get Sister Paula to pursue a degree in canon law. He told her the archdiocese would pay for her degree and she could go anywhere she wished to study. Thus her comment, “Little Paula Modaff in Rome.” She chose to study at Pontifical University of St. Thomas. She returned to serve as a canon lawyer in the archdiocese and also in the Diocese of Orange, Calif.
She still serves in the marriage tribunal and handles cases for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., in addition to her chaplaincy at St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove near Indianapolis.
Prayer is very important to Sister Paula and her time at the House of Prayer, even though it was during the years of change in the Church and in the Congregation, appealed to her contemplative instincts.
“That’s always been attractive to me. I tried several times to enter a contemplative community, but I’ve always been told to go back to my own community and be a prayerful person. So that is what I do,” she said.
But the apostolic ministries have created a path that has been most rewarding for her.
“It’s beyond any expectations I had. It is beyond anything I could have imagined. Just the opportunity to be called so deeply into the mystery of God, or as I like to say, the mystery of reality, or the mystery of life, or the mystery of love, is so special,” Sister Paula said. “My greatest support, other than my family, has been the community. I am so grateful to every Sister of Providence that I ever lived with because they helped me be what I am today.”
“Right now, as a chaplain, I am working mostly with the outpatient radiation and chemotherapy patients. Many of them are close to death. All of them are seriously ill. I never thought I could relate to people like that. But it’s just natural. We sit down and we talk and sometimes pray together. It’s a marvelous experience,” she said.
Her journey with very different ministries has put her in touch with the human spirit on many levels. She has worked with students who have a strong desire to learn. She has had a deeply prayerful period. She has ministered to people facing turmoil whose marriages have failed. She is working with people who are tragically ill.
What has she experienced with this wide range of human emotion?
“It probably sounds simplistic, but I’ve met God in all of that. I see myself as a tiny speck in the cosmos, but filled, filled, filled, with so much love; God’s love and love from others. One of my greatest prayers is ‘please help me return much love for much love,’” she emphasized.
Sister Paula has a favorable outlook on the future of religious life.
“In my opinion, apostolic religious life is going through a whole new birth. It is a viable, beautiful way of life. The complete form of this ministerial lifestyle still has not emerged. But it’s alive and it’s going to continue to be a wonderful, beautiful way of living. The new life is coming, but it hasn’t completely come forth yet,” she said.
“For women who will take the risk of being part of an entirely new venture, I can only say open those hands and get ready to create with us. We need their energy, their patience, and their faith, faith, faith.”
With Sister Paula’s energy and enthusiasm, she’s perpetuating the lack of routine and the
vacation spot: Northern Minnesota where my mother was born and raised.
time of day: pre-dawn and twilight
season: Winter, I consider snow to be mystical
dessert: everything with sugar
comic strip: Doonesbury
book: Pride and Prejudice
If I weren’t an SP I’d be: a grandmother spoiling her grandchildren
recreation: walking, hiking, reading, cooking, baking
quote: “Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.” — Mother Theodore Guerin