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Sister Paula retires from diocesan post as vicar for religious

Posted By March 6, 2014 | 10:43 am | Featured Article #4
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By William T. Clew

After nearly 23 years as diocesan vicar for religious, Sister Paula A. Kelleher, S.S.J., who retired Feb. 28, plans to take a little time off.
But, like a sister in Leominster said several years ago as she left one job and moved on to another, “I’m not retired, I’m recycled,” Sister Paula said she plans to look for something else to do.
She said she doesn’t know what it will be, but “I have credentials for other jobs.”
She earned those credentials over 61 years as a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the community she joined after she graduated from St. Peter High School.
She was born in Worcester, the youngest of  four. Her sister Kathleen, now retired, worked for the diocese as an assistant superintendent of schools. Anther sister, Barbara Argento, used to volunteer at the health clinic at St. Bernard’s Church on Lincoln Street. And her brother John, a soldier in the U.S. Army, died in the Korean Conflict.
When she became a Sister of St. Joseph she took as her name in religion John David, to honor her brother.
When Sister Paula joined the Sisters of St. Joseph community, they all wore the traditional habit. She said they were given the material and made their own. They were heavy and hot, she said. In the summer months she had a heat rash on her arms.
Then the community voted to adopt the dress of the day. Those who wanted to continue to wear the habit could do so, she said. Others wore appropriate contemporary clothing.
“Along the way we picked up a lot of laundry,” she said.
Her early school experiences in Worcester may have helped her get ready for her future job as Vicar for Religious by exposing her to various religious congregations.
In pre-primary and first grade at Ascension Elementary School she was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame. In grades 2 through 8 the Religious Sisters of Mercy taught her and at St. Peter’s it was the Sisters of St. Joseph.
She went to the Sisters of St. Joseph Mother House, Mt. Marie in Holyoke, in September 1953, where she was first a postulant, then a novice, then took temporary vows and then final vows. It was a seven-year process of training, study and work, plenty of time for her to be sure that this was the life she wanted.
After she took her temporary vows, she enrolled in Elms College and earned a bachelor’s degree in education. She was assigned to Sacred Heart Elementary School in Gardner in 1958. She was there for six years. First she taught the first grade. Then she taught mathematics and science to fifth- and sixth-graders.
Her next assignment was to Chicopee Falls. There she was Superior in the Sisters of St. Joseph’s convent and taught seventh- and eighth-graders in St. Patrick Elementary School.
In her first week as both superior and teacher, one of the sisters asked her if she felt comfortable in her new assignments. She said that, yes, indeed,  she felt very comfortable.
“Then,” the sister said, “perhaps you should stop watering the artificial flowers.”
After two years in Chicopee Falls she was assigned to Holyoke. There she was principal of what had been two schools, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and Immaculate Conception. But they merged under the name Mary Immaculate.     So, as principal, she was in charge of the teachers and students in two buildings a few blocks apart, and a third building where the students went for hot lunches. And if a teacher were absent, Sister Paula filled in as teacher.
Her next post was a major change from her experience in Holyoke. She moved to Longmeadow, a very affluent suburb of Springfield, where she taught first grade at St. Mary School.
“I had a volunteer in the classroom every day,” she said. “And the volunteers all were professional teachers.”
She said the school also had the latest teaching aid equipment. In addition, the Willie Ross School for the Deaf used some rooms in the building so St.  Mary’s students also were able to learn some sign language. Her first-graders were able to sign the alphabet, Sister Paula said.
She came back to the Worcester Diocese to be principal of St. Joseph School in Leicester, where she got off to an interesting start.
She obviously had been away from the diocese for several years. So she didn’t know everyone in the diocese. A priest she said she didn’t know came into the school one day, asked how things were going. She said they had a pleasant conversation. Finally she asked who he was. It turned out that he was Father Robert T. Donahue, diocesan superintendent of schools.
When she told her mother about that, her mother said, ‘Don’t tell anyone you belong to us.”
Later Sister Paula moved on to Spencer where she was religious education administrator for Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Mary parishes. After those parishes merged and became Our Lady, Queen of the Rosary Parish, she became pastoral associate.
While she was involved in all those jobs, Sister Paula also was building her credentials for other jobs that may come along by continuing her education at night, on weekends and in the summertime. She earned a master’s degree in education from Westfield State University. She earned another master’s, plus 30 hours, in human relations and community affairs from American International College in Springfield.
After she had spent three years at the Spencer parish, she applied for a course in clinical, pastoral education. She said she spent a summer studying at a hospital in Methuen, then studied at UMass Medical Center and St. Vincent Hospital, 1,600 hours in all. She also took a year to study theology in an advanced professional studies course at Assumption College.
She applied for the position of vicar for religious. It was the second time she had applied for the position, she said. This time, in 1991, Bishop Timothy J. Harrington appointed her to the position. She said the bishop told her that he was going to give her the job, but asked her not to tell anyone until he made it public.
She told him that she had to tell the mother superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Holyoke because that is who she worked for. Will she tell anyone, the bishop asked?
No, Sister Paula said.
Then go ahead and tell her, the bishop said.
“The office of vicar for religious is structured to maintain a bond between the bishop of the Diocese of Worcester and all forms of consecrated life,” the job description states. “The vicar for religious is appointed by the bishop and serves as his liaison to the various forms of consecrated life. The ministry of the vicar for religious is primarily one of service to all members of consecrated life.”
She works with all the religious sisters and brothers in communities in the diocese. She has studied the origins of the communities, the charisms of each and their founders and foundresses.
“We all are different, and all are one, working for God’s good,” she said.
She said she has enjoyed being vicar for religious.
However, the sexual abuse scandals “break your heart,” she said, because, though it was a very small number, some religious were accused.
Also, she is very involved in bringing attention to the Retirement Fund for Religious fund-raising efforts. The number of religious has diminished over the years. Communities are small and don’t have the money to take care of those who are retired and/or sick. The Retirement for Religious fund drive aims to alleviate that problem. Sister Paula said the Sisters of St. Joseph will have to sell some of the property at the mother house in Holyoke and move some of the sisters because they no longer can afford to keep it up.
But those concerns have not diminished the happiness she has experienced in her vocation.
“I am happy in my calling,” she said.
And she has enjoyed her years of ministry as vicar for religious.
“No sister or priest ever gave me a hard time. They were warm and accepting,” she said. “It was a great job.”