CHULA VISTA — As early as 4 years of age, Paula Smith dreamed of being a missionary, a nurse or doctor, a religious sister going to faraway places.
A missionary vocation was a childhood hope for her and it sustained her until it became a reality.
Sister Smith, a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, died of complications from cancer July 25. She was 86.
Like so many during this time of pandemic, she had to let go of having her family, her friends and even her cats near her and to live her final days under the care of the staff of Fredericka Manor Care Center in Chula Vista with Sonata Hospice support.
Born on Feb. 4, 1934, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Sister Smith first encountered the Medical Missionaries of Mary at their first house in the United States, located on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. On May 30, 1952, accompanied by her mother, godmother and grandmother, she entered the first American Novitiate.
She made her first vows on April 4, 1955, surrounded by family and friends. That October, she left for Ireland by ship and began her nursing studies and was assigned to her first mission in Nigeria, where she travelled by boat in January 1960.
She worked in Anua, Afikpo, returned to Ireland to study midwifery and then back to Obudu during the Biafran war. In 1970-72, she did postgraduate studies in London and Birmingham, spent some time in Ethiopia and returned to the United States to do graduate work in Boston and Chicago, leading to a master’s degree in Public Health.
In subsequent years with these skills and experience, Sister Smith worked with the International Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan for some years and then in New York and Boston in various nursing positions, and finally in the U.S.-Mexico border area in 1994, where she has lived and worked until her death.
Sister Kathleen Warren, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis who serves as director of the diocesan Office for Women Religious, said of Sister Smith, “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.”
Divine Word Father Joe Miller, who served as director of the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for the Missions from 2008-2018, hailed her as “a giant in the mission field.”
“She was around the world in really horrific situations and yet she always had that smile,” he recalled.
Sister Smith had been a frequent visitor to the Missions Office, often dropping by to say hello, and was “always a live wire” at the weekly luncheons the office held every summer for visiting missionaries, said Father Miller. When giving mission appeals, he said, she would “mesmerize … with her stories.”
Father Miller remembered his late friend as possessing “a wonderful, warm sense of humor,” but also as being someone who “spoke her mind” and “wasn’t afraid to challenge people” when it came to the subject of the disenfranchised.
Sister Eva Rodriguez, who serves in the Missions Office as diocesan director of the Missionary Childhood Association, described Sister Smith as “a true missionary.”
“She was a joyous person, had a warm personality, always with a smile on her face,” said Sister Rodriguez, a member of the Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Sister Paula will be remembered for her charity, kindness and her great missionary heart,” she said. 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.”
A Mass and celebration of her life will be held when it is possible for friends and family to gather. Her remains will be interred at the Medical Missionaries of Mary’s funeral plot near Boston.