Raised on a farm outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sister Paulanne answered the call to serve early in life. Intrigued by the mission of the School Sisters of St. Francis of St. Joseph Convent—a community of Catholic sisters dedicated to building a more just and peaceful world—she entered the convent and trained to be a teacher.
Since that time, she has spent more than half a century as a beloved teacher and role model, forming the hearts and minds of generations of young people at the primary and middle-school levels. Today, Sister Paulanne teaches religion to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help's parish school in Glenview—and also tutors her young charges in the art of giving.
"It's just as important to teach young people how to make a difference in the world as it is to teach them about math or literature or history," she states. "I say to my students, ‘Run with the ball, make a difference, don't stand on the sidelines, you have to change the world!" And they get it—they understand.
"These students are an inspiration to me," she adds. "I tell them stories about people coming to my door who have nothing—families who live in their car or homeless men and women who sleep in the woods at night. I tell them that McDonald's gift cards are a great way to help people get a warm meal in a warm place or that I am looking for quarters to help homeless moms do their laundry. I am always amazed by how many students show up the next day with quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies—whatever change they can spare to help people in need."
Teaching and nurturing the next generation of women and men for others are just two of Sister Paulanne's passions. For more than 30 years, she has also been out on the front lines in the fight against poverty, helping families in crisis reclaim their hope and dignity through the parish's Needy Family Fund
Although Sister Paulanne has been helping people in need on an informal basis since arriving at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in the early 1960s, the Needy Family Fund was founded in the mid-1980s to provide more structured support, as well as social services, for families struggling with stressors such as illness, the loss of a loved one, unemployment or homelessness.
"Father Myles McDonnell came to me in the early 1980s and said, ‘We have a family in the parish with 10 children. The father is sick and out of work. We need to create a program to help families like this one. Why don't we call it the Sister Paulanne Needy Family Fund?""
With characteristic modesty, Sister Paulanne responded, "Why don't we just call it The Needy Family Fund?" But Father McDonnell prevailed—and the Sister Paulanne Needy Family Fund was born.
Since its inception over three decades ago, the Needy Family Fund has helped thousands of families in crisis. During the 2017–18 fiscal year alone, the fund served more than 130 families and helped 63 students purchase all of their back-to-school supplies and clothing.
Although some things have changed over the years, the spirit behind the fund remains the same.
"In the past, when a family had no money to pay rent, we paid it," recalls Sister Paulanne. "If a family didn't have food, we gave them food. It was immediate and hands on. Today, we have an advisory committee and a social worker, and the people we serve can take advantage of the parish's Sharing Room, which is filled with clothing, furniture, household items and personal items."
Meanwhile, Sister Paulanne continues to respond to every downtrodden soul who shows up on her doorstep as she always has—with an open heart, a kind word and whatever she has at her disposal.
"We don't turn anyone away," she says. "I keep gift cards on hand for the homeless people who live in the woods so that they can enjoy a hot meal. Sometimes I'll run across the street to get gas cards for working parents who can't afford to fill up their gas tank to drive to work. We try to respond in some way to everyone who comes to us with a need."
As Sister Paulanne sees it, the needs of the community reflect a problem that plagues our country as a whole.
"We are the greatest nation in the world with the most resources and potential, and we do not
provide the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter to help people survive," she points out. "I have been told by teachers in unincorporated parts of Glenview that there are children who go back to the cafeteria tables after lunch to see if there's any food left to take with them because they have nothing to eat at home. Mothers from our community continue to come to us for food, diapers and gas because they have nothing."
She pauses, but only long enough to take a breath. "We have to do more!"
Ironically, when Loyola Academy President Rev. Patrick E. McGrath, SJ, first broke the news to Sister Paulanne that she was being honored as the 2019 recipient of Rev. Daniel A. Lord, SJ, Award for Distinguished Service in the Cause of Youth, she protested that she was not worthy.
"I told him, ‘You are going to have to find someone who deserves the Lord Award, because that's not me!"" she recalls with a laugh. "But seriously, I think there are people who have done so much more to help children and communities—people like Sister Rosemary Connelly of Misericordia [who received Loyola's Lord Award in 1991] or Rev. L. Scott Donahue of Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. Those are people in the trenches, on the front lines—doing whatever needs to be done."
'Like Father Myles McDonnell some 30-odd years earlier, Fr. McGrath gently persisted until Sister Paulanne reluctantly agreed to be recognized for nearly 60 years of service to children and families.
' "It is very humbling to get up in front of people and accept an award like this when everyone in the room has done something to improve the lives of others," she confides. "That's the reality of it. Whenever people say I am doing a great job with the poor, I tell them that it is a team effort. I can inspire and inform people, but none of what I do would be possible without the community members who support our work—from the benefactors who share their financial resources with the Needy Family Fund to the volunteer advisory committee members who give generously of their time to help steward those resources to the network of attorneys, dentists and doctors who provide pro bono services for families in need to the OLPH Women's Club guilds, which hold monthly collection drives to keep the shelves of the parish's Sharing Room stocked with basic necessities."
'Yet those who know Sister Paulanne well are quick to cite her unique and invaluable contributions to the community.
"I have been working with Sister Paulanne for 15 or 20 years," says Tom Hart, who serves as a volunteer on the Needy Family Fund advisory committee. "She is the reason that the Needy Family Fund is in existence and remains strong financially. If there is a single thing that she gives to people that is more important than money or resources, it is hope. Sister is oftentimes the only person these people feel they can turn to when they are in complete and utter despair. She has this amazing ability to sit and commiserate with people in their darkest hours and convince them that maybe it's not time to give up, that maybe there is a way that the parish can help them turn things around. I've seen her sitting on the steps of the church with a woman who is crying her eyes out and saying, ‘Don't give up, we'll help you…you are not alone any longer…we will be there to help you every step of the way…" She is faith, hope and charity—all wrapped up in one person."
"Sister Paulanne has long been a model of faith and service to humankind," reflects Loyola Academy President Rev. Patrick E. McGrath, SJ. "She has raised the bar for all of us with her countless acts of quiet generosity and kindness in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish community and beyond. Her legacy of service to those most in need is legendary—and we are honored to recognize her contributions to children and families at this year's President's Dinner with the Rev. Daniel A. Lord, SJ, Award for Distinguished Service in the Cause of Youth."