The surprising life of Sister Paula Damiano
The prophet Isaiah tells us: “Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18-19
Sister Paula Damiano, SP, has had many opportunities to “remember not the former things” in order to embark on new and challenging adventures. And sometimes Providence takes us in surprising and unexpected directions.
For example, Sister Paula still has fond memories of the fun-loving Italian sisters who would invite her into the convent after grade school for warm cookies. But then she began to consider becoming a sister herself. And given a choice between warm cookies and a demand for excellence, she chose the serious professionalism of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods who taught her at Marywood High School in California.
And she still is not sure how, having earned a degree in art education, she found herself back at Marywood High School on her first mission teaching religion and in charge of the yearbook.
Others told Sister Paula as a young sister that “if you have one ounce of talent, the community will pull it out of you and use it for ministry.” So, she should not have been surprised when she moved from teaching to vocation ministry and parish ministry to Congregation leadership. Along the way she earned a master’s degree in spirituality and a certificate in business executive management.
A favorite quote of Sister Paula’s is from the Persian poet Hafiz: “True art makes the divine silence in the soul break into applause.” As a young sister, she was astonished but willing when she was asked to produce a holy card to honor a visit from the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, France. But she pulled it off. Years later, in July of 1999, she spearheaded an unforgettable event for Congregation members, a “Festival of Extravagant Arts.”
Her gift for creativity was put to good use when in 2012 Paula became the co-director of the Providence Spirituality & Conference Center (PSCC) at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. In this role, she oversees retreats and programs the Congregation offers. Today Sister Paula finds herself welcoming visitors to hermitages and a new retreat and guest house, Woodhaven, a place she calls a gift. “People can come and just be quiet in the Woods.”
What other surprises have sprung from her work at Providence Spirituality & Conference Center? Sister Paula grew up immersed in traditional Catholicism. But as she participated in the Inter-Faith Council of the Wabash Valley, she developed a new understanding of the Communion of Saints. She came to envision the saints as people committed to the good, regardless of their faith tradition. The deep friendships she developed with these people confirmed her belief that we are all on this journey, whether we call our God Jehovah, Lord, Allah or Yahweh. She found she has much in common with other daughters of Abraham — Jews, Muslims, Christians from a variety of faith backgrounds.
Sister Paula’s vision of a “community of saints” has influenced the kinds of programs and retreats offered at the Providence Spirituality & Conference Center. “I want people to know about great thinkers, writers from many different traditions.” This is why there are programs designed to help people grow in their own faith traditions while they learn about great thinkers and writers who have traveled different spiritual paths.
One thing that has not changed for Sister Paula is her passion for extravagant arts. She believes her creativity has helped PSCC offer programs that provide a bridge between the traditional and the innovative: praying the Rosary, centering prayer, praying through photography, the labyrinth, nature, discovering God through art. Other programs explore a variety of topics, such as the mystics, great faith thinkers, challenging books, justice and antiracism.
The restrictions imposed by COVID-19 led to the creation of virtual and hybrid programming, a happy consequence that has broadened the scope and reach of Providence Spirituality & Conference Center.
What does the future hold for Sister Paula, PSCC and the Sisters of Providence? Perhaps we will choose to “remember not the former things” and strike out on new paths. It may be the God of Providence who will surprise us and say: “Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Originally published in the winter 2023 issue of HOPE magazine.
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