Sisters’ Words of Wisdom: Sister Paula Hagen, OSB

Sisters' Words of Wisdom: Sister Paula Hagen, OSB

Sister Paula looks like a pretty happy child!

Sister Paula (Mary Lorraine) Hagen was born into a devout Catholic family in Bird Island, Minnesota, a small town (population 959) in Renville County. Her father, Albert, was a farmer who planted crops and raised hogs and cattle. Paula grew up as a healthy, happy child on the farm, and enjoyed working and playing with her two brothers and three sisters. Her mother, Mary Catherine “Kay,” was a gifted pianist with an associate’s degree in music who became the choir director at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Both of Paula’s parents were very involved in the country school, local 4-H Club and highly respected members of the parish. They prayed the Rosary together as a family on a regular basis, instilling in Paula a deep devotion to Mary and Jesus from an early age.

Sister Paula was Valedictorian of her high school class in 1955. She attended the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul on a four-year scholarship and studied Occupational Therapy. This was a needed career at the time, due to the polio epidemic. During her freshman year, she and her best friend, Carol, took a History 101 course and their professor was very interested in Benedictine monasteries in Europe. He taught his students about Benedictine history and impact on European art and culture. Paula asked one of the Sisters on campus if there were any Benedictine monasteries in the Twin Cities area. They were well aware of St. John’s Abbey in St. Joseph, MN, but she told them about St. Paul’s Priory, located at 301 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. One Sunday afternoon, she and Carol took the bus to visit the Priory, after calling in advance to make an appointment. They were told to ask for Sister Marcelline.

When the girls arrived, Sister Marcelline took them to the back porch, which was a “very cozy place” to visit and enjoy some ice cream. In the middle of the now-famous Red Stairs, Sister Marcelline showed the girls an architect’s plan for the future vision of St. Paul’s Priory which included a new Monastery building, and a junior college and high school located on a campus in Maplewood, MN. Paula was very impressed with the wisdom behind this great endeavor of planning ahead. “I knew these Sisters were going to go someplace and do something great,” she said.

Sister Paula and her younger brother, Albert, posing for a picture in 1953.

The following summer, Paula got a job at the Charles T. Miller Hospital working in occupational therapy. She received a formal invitation in the mail from St. Paul’s Priory to attend a First Profession and Final Profession of Vows Ceremony at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish on Summit Avenue. She was given a paid day off work to attend the ceremony by her supervisor, a colleague from St. Catherine’s. Paula remembers being very moved by the beauty and drama of the liturgy. The novices making their First Profession each knelt before the Archbishop and were given their new name and a blessing. There was also the ritual of the tonsure: the Prioress held the Sister’s hair and the Archbishop “lopped it off” with a scissors. “It was so public,” Paula remembers. “It was a very public display of their commitment to God and the monastic community. They were now called Junior Sisters.”

Sisters making their Final Vows laid prostate in silence on the floor of the church. Then, the bells started tolling. A funeral pall was gently laid over them, weighted down on four corners with lit candles, as the Litany of the Saints was chanted in Latin. “We understood that they were giving up their former life and rising to a new life,” Paula said. The sung words of the litany included: Arise, for you have been called to a new life. These Sisters now wore the full habit and a floral wreath on their heads. They were told by the Archbishop: You will never receive a crown of glory in this world, but you will in the next. Paula, extremely impressed with everything she had witnessed, was invited to attend the reception afterward at the Priory at 301 Summit Avenue. I said, I’ll stop by. I didn’t want to be implicated. But I was so impressed. Wow.”

The group of Sisters Postulants in 1956. Sister Paula is smiling in the back row, farthest to the right.

How would you know that God wanted you? That was my big question. The novices (‘white veils’) had spent a year in discernment. The other Sisters making Final Vows had spent 3-5 years in formation. So it wasn’t as overwhelming for them as it was for me.”

How would you know that God wanted you? That was my big question. The novices (‘white veils’) had spent a year in discernment. The other Sisters making Final Vows had spent 3-5 years in formation. So it wasn’t as overwhelming for them as it was for me.”

Sister Paula (right) and Sister Mary Lou (left) at their Final Profession in 1957.

Paula arrived at the Priory that afternoon to attend the reception. She remembers walking up the driveway on a summer day in July, and hearing the Sisters singing through the open windows as they were doing the dishes. One of these voices belonged to Sister Virginia Matter. “They were singing away. The young Sisters were playing games outside with the children. It was such a happy, joyful place!” There seem to be echoes of this joy even today at 301 Summit when one visits or walks by, imagining the Sisters on the lawn sixty years ago or sitting on the porch, as the fragrant hydrangeas and lush peonies bloom against the house.

Sister Paula rented an apartment across the street from the Cathedral and started going to morning Mass each day before work. The perplexing question kept running through her mind: How would you know that God is calling you? At the hospital, a medical student asked her to wear his fraternity pin. She declined. She had a scholarship to continue her studies for the next four years in occupational therapy and had no intention of making such a commitment.

After Mass each morning, she would stop at the shrine to St. Anne, mother of Mary and patron saint of brides. Paula began to pray for guidance. She said a novena to St. Anne, asking for a sign. “If God was calling me, I would never say no. I had all this negotiation with St. Anne. I said, you have to be more specific. Is this a yes or a no?” She even bargained with her and promised to become Sister Anne if she would just send a clear sign. Paula visited the chapel at the hospital on her lunch breaks and stayed faithful to God all throughout the day. She continued to say ‘yes’ in her heart to whatever God called her to do. She then became convinced that she should give religious life a try, knowing she could leave if she was unhappy. “I knew that if it was God’s will for me, I would be happy. I wouldn’t want to tell my children that I thought God had invited me to be a Sister, but I didn’t have the courage to do it.”

Paula’s scholarship was held for her for a year while she made her first vows in July with the Sisters of Saint Benedict at St. Paul’s Priory. Her mother expressed some concern since she knew her daughter was very independent. Her father had a harder time accepting Paula’s decision and could not bring himself to take her to the convent. He eventually became resigned to the fact that Paula wished to become a Sister and finally accepted it.

Sister Paula (middle, center) singing with the Community on the Red Stairs at St. Paul's Priory, 301 Summit Ave., in 1956.

“Wisdom, without a doubt, was something inside my thought process,” Sister Paula says. “I didn’t know what the virtue meant at the time. Was this going to be wise decision? It certainly has been. I’ve had a happy life. Not that it has always been easy.”

Sister Paula began a year of formation at the Priory and learned that the Rule of Saint Benedict was part of the Wisdom literature. She especially enjoyed Sister Luanne Meagher’s lively teaching on the psalms and a Scripture class on St. Paul. Paula and Sister Virginia Matter later become known as Sister Marcelline’s favorites. “We had her back,” Paula said.

Sister Paula made her Final Profession of Vows on July 11, 1958 at the Cathedral of St. Paul. She was now one of the young nuns lying face down on the cool, intricately patterned Italian marble floor of the Cathedral, ready to give herself completely to God. She was not able to choose the name Anne since it was already taken. Instead, she chose Paula (with a special secret “a” for Anne) due to her long standing fascination and study of Saint Paul.

As a new Sister, Paula appreciated being allowed to use her creative abilities in new situations. For her first assignment, she was asked to return to the College of Saint Catherine to continue her education. Her second assignment was at St. Mary’s Hospital and Home in Winsted, MN to bring occupational therapy to the patients there (which they had not heard of) followed by an assignment at St. Therese in New Hope. This was “a golden opportunity” for a young occupational therapist to help design a new care facility, along with Sister Marcelline and Sister Virginia Matter. Subsequently, Paula was assigned to St. Joseph’s Home for Children where she could see the handicapped children “come alive” and make progress as they completed daily projects and activities in occupational therapy. “The children were happy with themselves,” Paula recalls. “This made me happy, like a mother.”

Sister Paula then spent five years in Mesa, Arizona in parish ministry with children and their families at St. Timothy’s. “It was wonderful to be in a totally different culture and learn to accept that culture,” Paula says. She was asked to instruct the parish in creative ways to celebrate the liturgical season as well as “Christmas Around the World.” Following this assignment, she spent five years at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale and truly enjoyed the challenge and gift of her decade in Arizona, where she made many lifelong friends.

From 1992- 2012, Sister Paula became nationally known for her retreat ministry with women and families through Ministry of Mothers Sharing (MOMS) which assisted more than 500,000 mothers of all ages in the US as they experienced transformation through teaching sessions held at parishes, retreats and workshops focused on prayer, faith, ritual, spiritual gifts and friendship.

Part of the mission of the Ministry of Mothers Sharing, a national program and outreach ministry of St. Paul’s Monastery launched by Sister Paula, Vickie Jennett and Tricia Hoyt, was to help women enhance their prayer lives and find spiritual support and wisdom in a faith-sharing environment with other mothers. They learned that motherhood is a call to holiness, and even the small, sometimes tedious chores involved in raising children are “little acts of God.” Mothers came together to find community, which strengthened them in their roles to support and nurture their families.

Sister Paula with Sister Eleanor Wartman and Sister Carol Rennie, former Prioresses of St. Paul’s Monastery, 2008.

Sister Paula has always encouraged lay people and employees to consider joining the Benedictine Associates or Oblate program and has supported them in these endeavors. Both of these programs are vital and thriving at St. Paul’s Monastery, attracting new candidates each year who are called to assist in the Sisters’ ministries and serve in different ways. Sister Paula is a great friend to many. She is also an avid book lover (sharing books with her friends!) and is always reading something new. Sister Paula will never stop learning and growing through her Benedictine love of study.

During her time as Prioress of St. Paul’s Monastery (2014-2019) when Sister Paula led the leadership team and Monastic community through many important events and changes, she became even more devoted to the virtue of Wisdom in helping the Community make wise decisions for the future. She shared her love of Wisdom with the team through several books by Sister Irene Nowell, OSB. These books were studied in detail by the Monastic Council and Benedictine Associates Committee. A favorite Wisdom prayer was recited at the beginning of each meeting:

I, Wisdom, am with you.
I am a light that will never grow dim.
Love me and you will see me,
Look for me and you will find me.
At the slightest indication of your desire for me,
I will make myself known to you.
Watch for me at the very start of what you are about,
And you will have no trouble.

Another of Sister Paula's favorites is arranging flowers for chapel. Here she is standing next to one of her bouquets in St. Paul's Monastery chapel in January of 2022.

During Sister Paula’s 60 years of creating and living Benedictine Spirituality according to the Rule of St. Benedict, she has experienced the Rule as a real guide to living with a wisdom perspective. “The Rule helped all of us try to make wise decisions for the advancement of our Benedictine Community and our personal spiritual journey home,” she says. What is more delightful than the voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. - Prologue, R.B. 19-20