Sister Paula Smith was born Joan Smith in Charlestown, MA, USA, on 4 February 1934. She attended schools in the Boston area. From as early as four years of age she dreamed of being a missionary Sister, going as a nurse or doctor to faraway places. She began to see that dream become a reality when she met our MMM foundress at our first house in the USA, on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. That was in early 1952 and a conversation she had with Mother Mary put her at peace.
On 30 May 1952, accompanied by her mother, godmother and grandmother, she arrived at our first American novitiate. She was received as a novice a year later at our next US foundation in nearby Winchester, MA, and made her first profession of vows on 4 April 1955, surrounded by family and friends. That summer she helped on promotion work. By October she was on a ship bound for Ireland to begin her nursing studies at the International Missionary Training Hospital (now Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital) in Drogheda.
She completed her training in 1959 and in 1960 was assigned to Nigeria. She went first to Anua, where she was in charge of the outpatients department and central supplies. In 1961 she moved to Afikpo and worked in the paediatric, medical and surgical wards and in outreach clinics. Paula returned to Ireland in 1965 to do midwifery studies. She spent two more years in Nigeria, this time in Obudu during the Biafran war.
Paula then went to London and Birmingham for postgraduate nursing studies. She worked for some time in Ethiopia, where MMM had a programme for people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy), and returned to the US in 1975. She completed a Master of Public Health in Chicago and then taught frontier nursing from our mission in Clinchco, VA. After a short time working in the Bronx, NY, she went to Pakistan in 1982, serving with the International Red Cross and UNHCR. Her varied missionary journey then brought her back to the Boston area, where she did six years of nursing in various hospitals and health centres, including one in Chinatown.
A new horizon opened for MMM and for Paula when, in 1993, she was assigned with Sister Mary Ellen Sambuco to begin a new mission in San Ysidro, in southern California near San Diego. Paula moved between San Ysidro and Tijuana, Mexico, doing pastoral work and distributing food and medical supplies, often with her friend called Sister Maggie Yee. Sister Paula also helped in child protection issues as well as in drug rehabilitation with the Brothers of the Good Shepherd.
In 2011, when our house in San Ysidro was sold, Paula moved to Imperial Beach, CA, where she continued work for the poor of Tijuana. Paula continued to be surrounded by wonderful friends – and her cats! Like so many during this time of COVID-19, when she needed further care she had to let go of having her family, friends and cats nearby. In June 2020 Paula moved to Fredericka Manor Care Center in Chula Vista, where with Sonata Hospice support she died peacefully on 25 July 2020.
We remember Paula for her great heart. She had an infectious laugh, a great sense of humor. She often spoke of her family, including the Polish side of her heritage, remarking how she stood out among her school classmates with her Smith surname.
We especially remember her great love for the poor. Divine Word Father Joe Miller, director of the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for the Missions from 2008-2018, called her ‘a giant in the mission field…She was around the world in really horrific situations and yet she always had that smile.’ He described her as being ‘a live wire’ at the weekly luncheons the office held every summer for visiting missionaries, remarking that she possessed ‘a wonderful, warm sense of humor.’ She was also someone who ‘spoke her mind’ and ‘wasn’t afraid to challenge people’ when it came to the disenfranchised.
Sister Eva Rodriguez, a Sister Servant of the Blessed Sacrament and diocesan director of the Missionary Childhood Association, said that Paula was ‘a joyous person, had a warm personality, always with a smile on her face. Sister Paula will be remembered for her charity, kindness and her great missionary heart. As a religious sister, ‘she saw the face of Christ on the poor and needy. She lived her life in the service of her beloved.’
Sister Kathleen Warren, a Sister of St. Francis and director of the San Diego Office for Women Religious, said, ‘She was such a blessing to so many, and so many lives were impacted by her passion, her fidelity to the Gospel and to God, and her identity as a Medical Missionary Sister.’
MMM Sister Geneviève van Waesberghe wrote: ‘As a young sister, I remember meeting her in the motherhouse. She was on her way to Pakistan to work with refugees. Much later, in ‘97 with Sister Renée Duignan, I spent Christmas with her in Tijuana. We saw her at home, mingling with the local community, including those who lived on the “dump”. She was Santa Claus for the children, who obviously knew and loved her. We had great fun just watching her! She was a free spirit, able to discern those in need. I think we need more of that for the future!’
Sister Joanne Bierl, MMM Area Leader for the Americas, wrote: ‘She had wonderful friends and companions on her journey, especially in the last decades in southern California and Tijuana. Thank you to all who were so good to her, to her family scattered around the USA, to her MMM family who have many wonderful memories of Paula, and to her care-givers, all of whom were privileged to be with her in her last days while the rest of us relied on good memories. Thank you to all whose kindness and help allowed her to stay in her home with her beloved cats. May Paula, who loved life, rest in peace in life eternal.
We are grateful to Denis Grasska, assistant editor of The Southern Cross, of the Diocese of San Diego, for the quotes from people who knew Paula in San Diego.