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Benedictine Sister Mary Paula loved for her compassion, wit and fidelity

Benedictine Sister Mary Paula loved for her compassion, wit and fidelity - (03-07-2019)

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Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration Mary Paula Thompson, OSB died on July 1, 2019.

She was born Mary Paula on June 20, 1927, in Shackelford (now Marshall), Missouri, to Raymond Thompson and Laura Schieberl. She was one of eight children - four brothers and three sisters. She and her siblings attended a one-room country schoolhouse.

“There were about forty children in the first eight grades,” she said. “It was the same school our dad attended.”

When scarlet fever struck their home, not everyone escaped. Mary Paula’s brother, Lawrence, died at the age of 4, and she almost lost her own life. It was devastating for the family, but they persevered. “God brought us through it all,” she once said.

The Thompson children spent a lot of time at their Catholic parish. Her mother served as the organist, and her father was a member of the Holy Name Society. “It felt like we grew up in the choir loft,” she laughed.

After country school, she attended Mercy Academy in Marshall. The day after high school graduation, she left home for a job at the Quartermaster Depot in Kansas City, Missouri, the result of a good score on a civil service exam.

“I was very bored with all of the office work,” she recalled. After a conversation with one of the staff nurses, she began to think about a different line of work. “I asked her about how she’d become a nurse and how I could become one,” she said. “I liked the thought of having personal contact with people.”

Mary Paula received a registered nursing degree from St. Joseph School of Nursing in Kansas City in 1948. She then attended Mount Saint Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, where she received a bachelor’s of science degree in biology in 1951. A few months before graduation, she began a 30-day novena to our Blessed Mother, asking for guidance.

“I asked her to help me decide where I was supposed to go if I had a vocation,” she said. “My parents had visited Clyde when I was young. My mother was fascinated. She thought it was the holiest place she had ever been.”

Her mother was thrilled with the idea of Mary Paula following a religious calling. Mary Paula wasn’t quite so sure.

“My mother had been praying that one of her children would give themselves to God, and I was praying that it wouldn’t be me,” she laughed.

After consulting with a supportive spiritual director, Mary Paula’s doubts remained, and she visited Clyde.

“As soon as I went into the chapel and knelt down, I knew this was where I belonged,” she said. “I thought that I could make it in this place, if the God of Heaven and Earth were there all the time. I said to Jesus, ‘OK, I won’t run away any longer. This is it.’”

Mary Paula entered the Benedictine Sisters in 1951. She made her first monastic profession on Feb. 24, 1953, and was given the name Sister Mary Damien. She made her final monastic profession on March 13, 1958. She changed her name back to Sister Mary Paula 10 years later.

One of the few extroverts in the community, Sister Mary Paula spent the early years learning how to adapt to monastic life. Rules such as waiting in silence at table for the salt and pepper shakers proved too much one day, resulting in a learning experience of how to use hand signals.

As a nurse, Sister Mary Paula was the administrator of the congregation’s healthcare center at various times. She served as subprioress for the Benedictine Sisters’ Tucson, Arizona, monastery during the late 1960s when the Tucson community spurred efforts toward renewal in the congregation.

“I was considered the ringleader, but I was just a humble participant,” she said.

While living in the Kansas City convent in the 1970s, she worked as a eucharistic minister once a week at St. Luke’s Hospital. This spurred her to enroll in a clown class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City because “being a clown has a value in healing.” She dressed up as a clown for various community parties and gatherings over the years.

For six years in the 1980s, she was prioress of the monastery in San Diego. Sister Mary Paula was appointed as director of novices or postulants several times. She also touched many people in her work as a spiritual director.  

Sister Mary Paula and three other sisters attended the Benedictine Institute of Sacred Theology (BIST) for six weeks each summer. The sessions were conducted at the College of Saint Benedict in Saint Joseph, Minnesota, with affiliation to Saint John’s University. She graduated from the program with a master’s degree in sacred doctrine.

A fond memory of that time was the mode of transportation the Sisters once took to Minnesota: a hearse driven by the owner of a local funeral home and friend of the community. “The monastery didn’t have a car big enough to take all us together, so they put us in this hearse. Mr. Johnson was used to carrying the dead around, but he got four live Sisters in this shot,” she joked.

Sister Mary Paula was gifted in things such as cherishing personal relationships, in being able to see the good in situations and people, and in remembering and telling humorous stories with gusto. Those who had her as their formation director fondly recall her down-to-earth practicality as well as her compassion and understanding.  

Sister Mary Paula suffered from heart disease in later years and lived at the congregation’s Our Lady of Rickenbach Healthcare Center since 2007. Her health declined gradually but only rarely did she miss community events. The week before she died, she attended a scripture class. She died peacefully with her brother, David, his wife and his daughter, as well as fellow by her side.

Sister Mary Paula once said, “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘We are not human beings struggling to be spiritual. We are spiritual beings struggling to be human.’”

Of herself she commented, “I often think with gratitude of my faith. You wouldn’t stay if you didn’t have faith. I believe so firmly in God’s presence in this community and in myself working here and being here.” 

Sister Mary Paula is survived by one brother, David, many nieces and nephews and her monastic family. The Mass of the Resurrection in the Adoration Chapel will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 6, 2019. Burial will follow in Mount Calvary Cemetery.