A Heart of Generosity and Love: Sister Agnes Paulina’s Vocation Journey

The article below is an excerpt taken from “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Sister Agnes Paulina was born in Poland and immigrated to the United States with her parents. Throughout her life, she wanted to help others understand the true meaning of suffering and to embrace the Catholic faith. Influenced by Saint John Paul II, who she met while living in Poland, Sister Agnes Paulina eventually discerned her religious vocation and joined the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, where she shares her love of God generously with everyone she meets.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister Agnes Paulina, you come from another country very dear to my heart since my last name is Bogdanowicz, which is Poland. Tell us your memories of growing up in Poland.

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

It was beautiful. It was a gift from God to be raised in that way because my family has always been faithful to their faith. We come from a Southern area of Poland where the highlanders live, and they have a special tradition for John Paul II. When he would come and visit, they would dress up in [traditional] outfits. I wore one as a little girl and did folk dancing. I love the fact that everybody around me was Catholic and celebrated their faith without any shame or reservation. I remember being a flower girl for Eucharistic processions on Corpus Christi and always going to church and having Catholic friends and great camaraderie growing up. I had a sense that God exists and that He’s love, and He loves me and wants what’s good for me. That is something I realize not everybody has nowadays in the world, which is part of the reason why I decided to make the leap. I lived in a little town called Skawa on the southern borders of Poland above the Tatra Mountains. It’s about 30 minutes from the famous mountain trail the Pope would climb. We would often go there and visit. It was a beautiful time of freedom to experience the beauty of God’s creation. I remember being with my grandparents and cousins and going hiking and camping, and having a beautiful time and being free.

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Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister, were you born under Communism?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

It’s a tricky question because my parents remember it vividly. I was born around the time when it was winding down; however, it was still prominent in the structures, and it’s something that’s not easy to root out right away. My parents have vivid memories of standing in line for food or toiletries or other things that weren’t easily accessible then. I remember everything was a gift growing up. The spirit of poverty that everything is a gift from God and that my parents had to work so hard to provide for me and my brother. I always appreciated their faith in God’s providence. We learned growing up that God will ultimately provide, and He is all-loving in everything that He gives or doesn’t give us.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How would you say that influenced the person you are today to have known that aspect of poverty?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

I think it’s beautiful because in our convent we take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Poverty has a special place in my heart because it gives us that dependence on God and whatever His will is, whatever He gives us or doesn’t give us. I think back to my parents and how they were trustful in the circumstances, even difficult ones, that everything would be okay. That brings  joy to my heart to know that He is here and always providing. He’s always in control, and I don’t have to worry about anything. It’s when I try to fight Him when difficulties come because when we go against God’s will, things start to get tricky and complicated.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Exactly. That brought to my mind a thought that my Polish side of the family’s very generous. Your parents are incredibly generous. I would always think, “What does that instill in us?” I think it’s the desire to give to others because there’s always someone that has it more difficult than we do.

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

I definitely agree. It’s our responsibility to share with others what we’ve been given freely.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Over in Poland, they will give you the crucifix off of every wall, the last little bag of tea. I think, “I don’t need to take everything that you’ve got.” “Oh, no, no, no. We want you to.” I have never seen such smiling, like you’re doing them a favor when you accept their gifts. I will always remember that. I think it comes from suffering. You come from a culture and a people who had umpteen years of intense suffering for the faith. You were describing even your friendships and your life with other young people your age and how much faith [they all had]. Would you say that was still typical when you were born? That’s the way you were raised?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

Very much so. It was probably because Communism was winding down. We had these vivid memories of our parents being forced to speak Russian or to do certain things against our faith that they don’t want to do, and we took the ownership of our faith very seriously and the ownership of our history  because we knew that if we don’t, somebody will take that away from us. I think it’s very critical today, especially for the world, to realize that there are values that don’t change that  should always be respected, and they can’t be wiped out of human nature.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How old were you when your family came to the United States, and why did you leave Poland?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

I think it was a desire in my parents. I’m sure they prayed about it long and hard. It was not a straightforward process because it was hard to leave Poland at that time, and I think my parents took it as a sign of Providence when the paperwork actually got through to us because a lot of mail would get lost or they weren’t able to process it as fast. We were initially going to leave a lot earlier, but it wasn’t possible. My family took a leap of faith in 2001, and we left for California, which is where my dad’s great-uncle settled in the 60s. That was in the times of intense Communism, suffering and poverty, and they wanted to give me and my brother a sense of being able to live the American dream. They wanted us to cherish the opportunity to grow and be a fully-developed human person, and they thought that that was going to be the best way that could happen.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You have a story I wish every American could hear loud and clear. Appreciation of the liberty that we have, that we fought for once and that we often take for granted, and that it is worth everything that we are and everything that we believe, the ability to pray freely and to go to church. How many of us take those liberties for granted? I know I never appreciate them enough, which is why it is good when I’m able to go to Eastern Europe and witness the living martyrs. I think every family can list those who died in the concentration camps, or died of starvation, or were caught in insurrection for a God-given liberty. In other words, they can count the martyrs in their family. I know I saw my last name four times in the Auschwitz concentration camp. I know I have that in my blood. You know you do. I think you have a unique gift to give us were born in the United States and can often take it for granted. Sister, what are some of your earliest memories when you came to the United States? What was it like to come into a different culture, country, and language?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

Culture shock. My family immigrated to the middle of the melting pot in Southern California, so I was surrounded by every culture and religion possible. I attended a public high school because my family couldn’t afford to send me to any other school. Entering high school at a liberal school was an interesting experience, but it’s also beautiful because my mom once told me she always prayed for me to meet good people, and that’s exactly what happened everywhere I went. I met one or two Catholic friends, and we became good friends throughout our whole life. I still keep in touch with them, and it’s beautiful, but it was shocking to see that not everybody is open about their religion and that religion is a taboo subject. You don’t necessarily practice it because you don’t want to offend other people, or maybe you’re afraid of being made fun of for your beliefs, not that that would’ve been done through any sort of administrative process, but it’s peer pressure. You want to be cool, and you don’t want to be made fun of. It’s been a beautiful experience to know that God always provides in those situations and that He finds those special people in our life to help guide us towards Him. Besides that, I think it was hard work because I had to learn another language from scratch. I was working hard because I wanted to give back to my family what they have given me by leaving the country. I put a lot of time into my education because I knew that my parents left everything behind for me and my brother to be able to take any opportunity that we can to develop and mature.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

What is the age difference between you and your brother?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

There’s 10 years. We get along well, and I think it’s because of those years. I often think about that. If we hadn’t immigrated, maybe our family wouldn’t be as close-knit because we had to stick together, and I had no choice. I had to babysit my brother, and we have so much fun together now. We reminisce, and it’s great to see that faith in him because he saw how much Mom and Dad gave up to start their life all over again from practically nothing. It’s emotional, but it’s also beautiful because we found a church in Los Angeles which is dedicated to serving Polish people. I remember distinctly my first reaction when I walked into the church. There’s this huge [painting of] Our Lady of Czestochowa. I thought, “This is home” because I knew wherever she was, that was home. I felt a peace that this was exactly where God wanted us to be for that period of time.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Were you impressed by the Americans’ love of Saint John Paul II?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

Very much. Growing up with him and being able to see him when he would visit and my parents having such respect and devotion was a beautiful way to unite and realize the Church is universal. We believe the same things, and we are going to be happiest when we are able to come together.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Father had also visited the United States. He has relatives in Chicago. He went back to his martyrdom. Tell me about your education. Where did you go to high school? Is that also in Poland?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

I went to a public high school in Orange County. After that, I attended two universities of California. First, for my undergraduate education, I majored in biology and chemistry. These seemed to be the things that I enjoyed studying in high school. It made sense, but I think there is also something different because I wanted to know how science explained life. I saw the division among people of science that refuse to believe there is an intelligent designer or Creator behind what goes on in science and animal or human bodies when I knew that the Bible clearly said that we have a Creator. How could you combine the two?  I thought, “If scientists own what they say, there must be a logical explanation that either refuses God and it makes logical sense or, two–” Actually, I didn’t know what to expect. I felt that drive to dig deeper. That’s why I studied biochemistry and biology in college. I wanted to know how we’re made. It was fascinating and beautiful to know. I remember being disappointed in one of my lectures when we talked about the origins of life, and it didn’t make sense for a random accident to be responsible for the creation of a fully mature and intelligent human being that we come to be today. I had this sense of, “I have discovered this isn’t exactly what I believe in.” I still thought that God could be served in other ways. I was interested in pharmacology at that point and researching human disease. I worked in a lab for a couple of years, but then realized I wanted to work with people more. I wanted to in the frontline helping people in their suffering. I saw this lack of the Divine Presence. People suffered because they didn’t know God and that was clearly seen in all the hospitals that I volunteered or worked at, and I wanted to bring that to them. Again, there was this limitation of “Can I evangelize like I would today or do I have to stay back and respect whatever it is that I think other people want me to do in that situation?” That was hard because I entered pharmacy school precisely to help people after I finished my college degree. I remember struggling with the idea of death and people dying without the Sacraments. I think that was the hardest part for me of the whole experience because we can devise the best regimens and the most beautiful ways of helping people in pain and in different disease states, but ultimately, every human heart is searching for an answer. They want to know if God exists. Medicine isn’t able to bring that to the human heart. I remember being distracted by that and praying one day to John Paul II actually and saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could lay my life down like you did for something that you really believed in? If I could find a home somewhere.” I randomly said that prayer never thinking that one day I would also serve in that same capacity, not as a pope, obviously, but as a religious sister. It was incredible looking back years from then to realize that he was listening at that point, and he was asking for graces for me at that moment. I’m so glad that we have saints interceding for us in heaven because I don’t know where I would be right now.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How did you find our community?

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

I took a break from school after I graduated and finished a residency. I wanted to find a home and a good job where Catholic values were respected. That was important to me. At that point, I was still thinking of healthcare. I thought, “Since I’m doing nothing at home, I’ll start,” so I did a lot of things. I went traveling, and I started exercising in all kinds of ways. I also started going to Mass daily because I wanted God to show me the way. There were a lot of questions I asked, maybe for the very first time of God, because I was so focused and going, going, going that I didn’t always discern whether or not He wanted me to go that path or go that far. I kept persevering because I thought, “Clearly, I’m trying to help my family and bring about something good in the world. I’m trying to help the people around me.” I found an Ignatian exercises class offered at our parish nearby, and that was one of the hardest things for me to do. It was to start praying with the Bible daily and make a holy hour daily because there’s a lot of distractions. I started thinking I wanted for God to show me who He is. I asked him, “Can You show me Who You are?” That’s when everything started rolling. God was so patient with me, and I’m so thankful that even though I was running in a million different directions, He kept waiting. Even as a little girl, I had this intense desire to give Him my whole heart, but I didn’t know what that meant. I was raised with religious and priests, but I never took that to heart because I thought, “There’s so many different beautiful ways I can serve God and other people.” I’ve had a tug on my heart since I was very little. Later on, in my teenage years whenever we would pray for vocations, I wanted to hide under the carpet, hoping nobody saw my red face at that point. When I was praying with a Bible every single day, I started going to Eucharistic Adoration.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Eucharistic adoration. That is so common in those who enter our community. They’ve been in Eucharistic adoration.

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

I fell in love with the Lord. He was kind, beautiful, and loving. I never experienced that love before, the love that I was craving for so long that the world couldn’t give me. I was distracted with so many things that it took a lot of silence and seriousness to be open to what God had to say. I probably did everything that I wanted to do in life, and then I said, “Okay, God, now You can show me,” which isn’t the way to do it. Looking back, I see His goodness, mercy, and patience, and I think, “That’s the God I know. That is the true God that I love, and I know that He loves me.” I was discerning at that point with my spiritual director, who mentioned the Dominicans because he knew that I liked to study. I said, “Dominicans. Where are any Dominicans? I don’t see any Dominicans around.” I searched the internet thinking, “I’m going to tell Father, ‘I’m not sure where you’re thinking about.'” Interestingly enough, I thought God had a sense of humor because our community was the first one to come up, and I saw these beautiful, young sisters running around with a frisbee, praying the Rosary, and having Eucharistic Holy Hour. I thought, “That’s the life I’m living right now.” I saw that a discernment retreat was coming up shortly, and I signed up and went. That was the weekend that John Paul II was canonized.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You were with us in the chapel in Eucharistic Adoration. We were listening as Pope Francis announced John Paul II a saint, along with John the XXIII. Wow!

Sr. Agnes Paulina:

Yes!. It was like I was home. I remember they were playing John Paul II’s audio recordings, and he kept saying, “Do not be afraid.” I started crying at that point and thought, “I prayed to you so many years ago. I feel like this is slowly starting to come together.” The following day when we were in mass at our chapel in Ann Arbor, I felt like I was home. Sister Mary Carol and Sister Peter Thomas, I think, sang this one hymn that I grew up with. It’s called Abba Father. That song was so dear to my heart. That was the song we sang pretty much every Sunday growing up. I love the fact that God is our Father. He’s our good Father. There are a million songs you could’ve played that day, and at that point, I knew I would regret if I didn’t try it. Here I am.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That is beautiful. I cannot thank God enough for you and giving you the graces and leading you the way that He has and your beautiful parents and your brother. [I am thankful for] all the richness that you bring to our community, which is important for us. God bless.


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