Saints for Our Times: St. Paula founded the Pious School Sisters
By Mary Lou Gibson
Sometimes children are forced to grow up quickly when their family life is radically changed due to illness, death or natural disasters. Paula Montal Fornés’s childhood ended abruptly when her father died when she was 10. The family lived in the Spanish seaside village of Arenys de Mar in the early 19th century.
After her father’s death, Paula was forced to end her education and find work to help her mother support her four younger siblings. Editor Bernard Bangley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that this was a troubled era in Spanish history and there were few opportunities for poor women to get an education and find work.
At the age of 11 Paula went to work as a lace maker to add to the family income. She soon found herself helping other girls and teaching them lace making. During these difficult years, Paula became prayerful and more aware of the suffering of others. She discovered that she had the gift of teaching and so began to teach the young girls the catechism and the basics of Christianity.
As she grew into young adulthood, Paula became aware that a woman who was not well educated was not prepared for life. Author Sarah Gallick writes in “The Big Book of Women Saints” that Paula believed that women were the essential element in the transformation of society, especially through the family. She saw few opportunities for women to obtain an education.
Author Jean Heimann writes that Paula believed that women needed an education to prepare them for life. At that time, women were treated as subordinate to men, and Paula believed this was a factor in the breakdown of the family unit. She felt called by God to do something about this educational inequality.
In 1829, Paula moved to Figueras, a border city between Spain and France, and with her friend, Inés Busquets, opened her first school for girls. The school had broad educational programs, which even surpassed those offered in schools for boys. This school was a success and led to other schools established in 1842 and 1846.
When Paula opened her second school in her hometown of Arenys de Mar in 1842, she was guided by the Piarist Fathers of Mataró. The Piarists were founded by Joseph Calasanz, a Spanish nobleman who established the first free public school in Europe. Paula was drawn to the Calasanz spirituality and rules and they formed her ideas for establishing her own religious congregation.
As she made plans to establish her third school, she was also ready to put into place the structure of her newly formed Congregation. A pivotal date in her life occurred on Feb. 2, 1847 when she made her profession as a Daughter of Mary Religious of the Pious Schools, along with three companions. The order is now known as the Sisters of the Pious Schools. Gallick writes that the sisters take a fourth vow to dedicate themselves to teaching. When Paula took her final vows, she became Paula of Saint Joseph of Calasanz.
Paula was not elected General Superior or even Assistant General of her new congregation. Instead, for the next 30 years, she was active in establishing schools in seven different cities. Heimann writes that the last school she personally founded was in the poor, small town of Olesa de Montserrat, at the foot of the Monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat. It became her favorite school and she stayed there until her death in 1889.
Heimann describes Mother Paula Montal’s spirituality as being driven by two elements: her participation in the Calasanz spirituality and her unique educational charism focused on the complete Christian education of women.
“The Pious School Sisters” received papal approval from Pope Pius IX in 1860. Today, the congregation has more than 800 Sisters, spread out over 112 communities, educating some 30,000 students in 19 countries.
Mother Paula Montal Fornés de San José de Calasanz was beatified in 1993 by Pope John Paul II and canonized in 2001. Her feast day is Feb. 26.