Sr. Paula Schmidt, OSSR
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish but might have eternal life.
Q. Sister, how did you discover your vocation?
A. When I was a small child, after meeting some of my cousins who had become Redemptorist priests, I decided I would like to become a priest. I don’t remember who I shared this dream with, but I soon found out that girls could not become priests. Although I liked some of my early schoolteachers, who were nuns, I was not attracted to the sisterhood. At that time, in the mid-1930s, I thought they dressed strangely, took strange names instead of their family names, and seemingly lived a very difficult life.
When I was about eight years old, the youngest of my cousins was ordained, and for his first Mass at St. Alphonsus Church in Grand Rapids I was chosen to be the bride in a tableau expressing his new union with the Church. Dressed as a bride and accompanied by girls dressed as bridesmaids and flower children, I carried the burse to him during the offertory. I remember feeling very connected to his priesthood and very honored.
When I was in the sixth grade, I began to take piano lessons. My mother suggested I come to an early Mass with her and my father and then practice my piano lessons at the time of the grade-school Mass. I grew to love this arrangement, especially being able to receive holy Communion every day.
When I started high school, I continued going to Mass daily. Our pastor would sometimes tease me by asking, “When are you going to enter the convent?” This irritated me. The fact that I was a daily communicant did not mean I was thinking of becoming a sister. I was sure you could be close to God in or out of the convent, and I began to dream of being a married saint with a dozen kids.
That dream kept hold of me in my early years at Aquinas College. But during the Christmas vacation of my sophomore year, as I practiced for a speech I had to give for an English class, I had a crazy thought: Maybe I should be an actress! At that moment I realized I had better figure out what God wanted me to do! That night I knelt down and prayed with all my heart: God I want to be what you want me to be—even if it is to be a nun! Those were my words.
By the next morning, I knew God wanted me to be a nun. Immediately I began to search for the December 1949 edition of Liguorian that had come to our home a few days earlier. It included a story about Redemptorist priests visiting a community of Redemptoristine Nuns in Toronto who had recently come from England. I always wondered if the Redemptorists had an order for sisters, like the Carmelites, Dominicans, or Franciscans. Since I couldn’t be a Redemptorist priest like my cousins, perhaps I could be a sister in the Redemptorist family. I immediately wrote a letter of inquiry to the prioress, Mother Mary Celeste. I thought it was a cautious letter, but soon after I received the reply: “You are accepted! Come!”
When I spoke to my parents, my mother encouraged me to finish the year of college before joining. She was disappointed it was not a teaching order. The Redemptoristines are a contemplative order dedicated to monastic prayer and especially prayer for the active ministries of the Redemptorist priests and brothers dedicated to “the most abandoned.”
On March 31, 1951—Saturday of the Octave of Easter, I became a novice with the new name Sr. Mary Peter of Jesus. Our community soon moved to an empty estate overlooking Kemfenbelt Bay on Lake Simcoe in Barrie, Ontario. We were poor and worked hard to earn a living by sewing vestments, making Redemptorist habits, Infant Jesus of Prague statues and garments, and art of various kinds. We also maintained a large vegetable garden to grow our own food.
By 1957, the community had grown to close to forty, large enough to consider making a foundation in the United States. I was one of six sisters chosen to found the first monastery in the United States in Esopus, New York, on the property of Mount St. Alphonsus, the Redemptorist major seminary. I came as novice mistress and laundress. Over the years since, I have often been involved with formation work. I served as councilor, subprioress, or prioress at different times. I learned to make Redemptorist habits and was in charge of that department for some years. I also pursued training in spiritual direction in two valuable programs, and I continue to be available for this blessed and beautiful ministry.
Q. What are the signs of God’s presence in your vocation?
A. A strong sign of God’s presence in my life is my own basic happiness. I am amazed I came to this calling. I have remained in it, basically at peace and content, through many difficult times. I’ve never really doubted that this is where God wanted me to be.
Q. Please tell us what the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith sustain in you.
A. My Catholic faith is my greatest resource for life. I thank God I was born into a believing family. God has instilled in me a desire to always seek out the best teachers and their teachings about our faith. I am troubled when some priests and bishops—and even the laity—appear to fault Pope Francis. It seems to me that the teaching of Pope Francis emulates that of Jesus in the Gospels. It’s kind, warm, and liberating.
Q. What gives you hope in the Church today?
A. What gives me hope are the many good laypeople who are so dedicated to raising their families with generosity and love, teaching their children to be kind and good, and educating them to be ready to serve others. I see this in my own extended family, and it lifts my heart. I am also hopeful because of the growing love for prayer and spirituality among the laypeople I know. I see a very real longing for God, and people giving time and effort to pursue and sustain their faith. God, who is love, rules the universe and at the same time is the love filling us and leading us on, day by day, so simply. With God, we find plentiful redemption!