Anita L. “Sister Teresa” Paul
May 21, 1924 – March 29, 2010
Training Location: Avenger Field (Sweetwater, Tex.)
Planes flown: PT-17, BT-13, UC-78
Assigned bases: Altus Army Air Field (Okla.)
Two-dozen pages into the Nashua High School yearbook of 1941, you will find her. Her hair, brown and curly, is piled neatly on the top of her head. She wears a cool expression, the bare hint of a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. Her dark eyes, though, give nothing away. Neither does her personal quote: “Whatever there is to know, she knows it now.” It’s as if Anita Paul sensed even then that her parallel passions would, at some point, intersect. It’s as if the motto for the class of 1941, Ad Utrumque Paratus – “prepared for either tale” – spoke directly to her future.
Paul, a Nashua native, would go on become one of the first women ever to fly for the United States military, a feat that has, until recently, gone largely unheralded.
She would later become a Carmelite nun, carrying out the rest of her days in a life of prayer and service. Anita Paul loved to fly. And Anita Paul loved God. This is the story of how she wove her devotions together into a single, remarkable life.
She couldn’t afford college. So after graduating as salutatorian of her class, 18-year-old Anita Paul took a secretarial job at the Nashua Gummed and Coated Paper Co. Six months later, the world stopped: the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, inviting the United States into World War II. Paul, in turn, left Nashua for Washington, D.C., to work in the War Department. She ended up in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps, which organized equipment, uniforms and supplies.
There, Paul learned about an experimental program designed to train young, civilian women to fly military aircraft. It was called the Women Airforce Service Pilots – WASP. With so many men needed to fight overseas, the military would recruit women to carry out non-combat flight duties at home, such as ferrying planes from one base to another, transporting cargo and testing aircraft. Paul had never been on an airplane, but she’d always wanted to fly one.
Born to Armand and Eva Paul in 1924, Anita Paul and her sister, Lucille, grew up with her mother’s extended family in a gray, 12-room farmhouse in Hudson. The Jacques-Rodier farm was on what is now Lowell Road. The family spoke mostly French, said Paul Jacques, Anita’s younger cousin, who now lives in Londonderry. The girls helped with chores, such as digging potatoes and holding up cow tails during milking. Anita and Lucille earned pennies for their work, which they slipped into a piggy bank to send to missionaries at Christmas.
Jacques, 10 years Anita’s junior, remembered Anita’s love for airplanes. “She used to point to the sky,” he recalled. “In those days, you could really see (an airplane).”
Anita Paul herself recalled spotting her first one around age 4. In an excerpt of the book “Out of the Blue and Into History,” Paul wrote, “In preschool of the presentation of Mary Academy, on rainy days the Sister used to tell us stories about the missionaries in the Arctic and Africa, etc. I had decided I would be a nun so I could be a missionary and fly the ‘stuff’ in. I never changed my mind.”
In 1942 or ’43, Paul moved near an airport to learn to fly. Once she earned enough hours to get a private pilot license, she applied for the WASP program, passing tests, a personal interview and a physical exam. She was finally accepted as a WASP trainee at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Some 25,000 women applied for the program; 1,830 were accepted. Of those, only 1,074 graduated, including Paul in 1944.
She received orders to report to Altus Army Air Field in Oklahoma. There, she served as an engineering test pilot of the UC-78, nicknamed “The Bamboo Bomber.” Years later, Paul would tell a Texas newspaper that her job was “perilous at times,” but that “male pilots were quick to disparage their female counterparts.”
“Women just weren’t supposed to be doing something like that,” she told The Times-Record of Waco. “But we just lived with it. We didn’t know what discrimination was. That term hadn’t even been coined yet.”
In addition to her test flight duties, Paul flew a Catholic chaplain to outlying bases on Sundays, the first merger of her two great loves. She described those trips as “flying for God.”
Paul’s pilot days came to an end on Dec. 20, 1944, when the WASP disbanded. Paul called it “a fateful day.” She returned to the Quartermaster General’s office, flying briefly for the Civil Air Patrol before landing a job as secretary to then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle in Washington, D.C. At some point during this time, Paul tried to “sell the idea of flying” to a mission group. “The bishop of the Hudson Bay area thought it was a great idea,” Paul wrote in “Out of the Blue.” “But after a year of discussions, the area not being charted very well and radio stations practically nonexistent, everyone decided it would be too much for the weaker sex.”
After much soul-searching, Paul decided to follow another calling: she would commit herself to a life of prayer, silence, solitude and a selective presence to the outside world as a Carmelite nun. “I decided the greatest thing I could do would be to give up my life for people,” she wrote in a WASP newsletter in 1977. Paul took her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, joining the cloistered monastery in Boston in 1951. Her cousin, Paul Jacques, was present when she took her vows.
“I thought to myself then, ‘Gee, she was flying airplanes. What a change!'” he said.
As for Anita Paul, now Sister Teresa, she looked at her decision a bit differently.
On April 1, 1951, she walked through the door of the cloister, went to the chapel, knelt down and prayed: “Lord, I offer you the sacrifice of never seeing the top of a cloud again.” Five years later, Sister Teresa discovered her God had other plans.
Thanks to her fluency in French, cultivated during childhood on a New Hampshire farm, Sister Teresa was asked to serve in convents overseas. In 1957, she went to a Korean monastery. Guess how she got there? “I flew the old prop TWA way (21 hours non-stop from Anchorage to Tokyo!)” she reported in the 1977 WASP newsletter.
After two years in Korea, she transferred to a Carmel in Japan, and then later to Kenya. By 1971, she’d moved again to the French West Indies on the island of Guadeloupe. Finally, in 1975, she traveled back to the United States, this time to Port Tobacco, Md.
Sister Teresa was charged with reactivating the oldest Carmel in the country. In Maryland, she met John Imbres, who owned a construction company. Sister Teresa – who was called “Mother Teresa” during this period, as she was the Mother Superior at the Carmel – needed help getting the rehabilitation project started. “She had no money, which makes it tough,” Imbres said, laughing. “And I was full of faith, so I said ‘Don’t worry about the money. Let’s move forward.'” “Mother Teresa of Guadeloupe,” as he called her, was not shy about getting her hands dirty. “She was heavy duty,” said Imbres, who remained a close friend for years. “She was a hands-on person. It would be nothing to see her carrying wood and grabbing nails.”
Sister Miriam John, who worked beside Mother Teresa, described her as “a very energetic person, very disciplined, very no-nonsense and down-to-earth. Keeping your feet on the ground and your soul in heaven are qualities prized by Carmelites. She would work hard in the garden most of the day, or put shingles on a new roof, then stay up late making vestments to sell or craft items for the little gift shop. She prayed as hard as she worked.” The restored Carmel was dedicated Oct. 1, 1976, and Mother Teresa stayed until she suffered a serious injury in 1984, Sister Miriam said.
Mother Teresa eventually moved back to Guadeloupe. She would stay there, cloistered, until one day, in 1998, a letter arrived. It was postmarked from Texas.
In the 1940s, Deanie Parrish flew airplanes as a WASP. Fifty years after grounding her B-26 for the last time, she and her daughter, Nancy Parrish, of Waco, Texas, founded “Wings Across America.” Their aim was to preserve and share WASP history through interviews, which they would post in a “virtual museum” online. “Because their history was left out of books, and all their records sealed and shipped away, the kids don’t study the WASP,” said Nancy Parrish, who has a production background with PBS. “So the idea of putting history online was pretty much, ‘Let’s get it somewhere where kids could find it.'”
One of their first prospects: Sister Teresa, formerly Anita Paul. Parrish said she had her doubts about Sister Teresa’s willingness to be involved, mainly because she lived far away and was a cloistered nun. But, “My mother said, ‘No. If you’re going to send (an invitation) to one, send it to all. I want her to know somebody cares about her service,'” Parrish recalled.
In 1998, the Parrishes wrote to Guadeloupe, and to their surprise, Sister Teresa wrote back. In long hand, she expressed interest in participating. First, however, she wanted to know if she could talk about God. “I wrote her back, ‘Hallelujah!'” Parrish said. “I wanted the WASP to feel comfortable talking about their whole lives, all the things that make them who they are.” There was just one more wrinkle: Sister Teresa needed permission from her Mother Superior. She was denied. The Parrishes thought the opportunity was gone, but Sister Teresa took the matter to higher-ups: she wrote to Rome, and got the Vatican’s go-ahead to visit Waco. Sister Teresa agreed to stay six days in Texas.
“She’s very determined,” Parrish said. “When she believed it was the right thing to do, she would do it.” In October 1999, Sister Teresa “just bounced off the plane,” Parrish said. “She was full of energy and enlightenment. There’s just something larger than life about this tiny person.” Dressed in her ever-present habit and sandals, Sister Teresa rose each morning to pray, Parrish’s cat toying with her toes. Deanie Parrish drove her to mass every day.
The interview with Sister Teresa took place at a Baylor University studio. Nancy Parrish said students, professors, even members of the janitorial staff stopped by to watch. During Sister Teresa’s interview, Parrish noted her patriotism, and her “innocent, impulsive love for everyone.” “All the WASP, to be fair, get sparkly when they talk about flying,” she said. “Teresa had it all the time. She was excited to be there, excited to be sharing. She talked about the Pope and things that were important to her, like the whole Carmelite philosophy of really praying for people and caring about them, even people you’ve never met.”
Sister Teresa also talked about growing up in her French-speaking family in Nashua, and about her father, Armand Paul, a World War I veteran. “She was unbelievably giving and loving and special and she talked constantly because of course, they don’t get to talk when in the convent,” Parrish said. “We feel like for Anita, no one is ever going to tell her story unless we do.”
Indeed, the story of WASP contributions to World War II were minimized for decades. A flurry of books, documentaries and Web sites about the women has only come about in the last 10 years. Finally, last year, Congress passed a law to award the WASP gold medals for being catalysts for the integration of female pilots into the military. In March, 2010, dozens of WASP gathered in Washington, D.C., for the medal ceremony.
Tricia McNelly, Paul’s niece, went on behalf of her aunt, who was by then suffering from memory loss at the Carmel in Guadeloupe. In the capitol, McNelly met many WASP, and viewed an 8-foot cutout of her aunt wearing her flying leathers. “It blew me away,” said McNelly, who lives in Florida. “Just to walk around and just listen to the stories and seeing these women light up as they talked about what they did … I was awestruck.”
The weekend after receiving the medal, McNelly got word that her aunt had fallen and broken her hip. McNelly said she called the Carmel in Guadeloupe, and a French-speaking neighbor translated a message to her aunt: She got her medal, and she loved her. A week later, near the end of March, McNelly learned that her aunt had died. Sister Teresa, Anita Paul, was 85.
A few weeks later, Paul Jacques brought his 15-year-old grandson, Alec Picard of Milford, to the New Hampshire Aviation Museum in Manchester. Jacques wanted to pass on his cousin’s story, so he showed Picard a large plaque, which features Anita Paul, some photographs, and these words, which are her own: “A hundred years from now, none of us is going to be here and there’s going to be a whole new generation … and if we have not passed on the ideals that make a country, that make a nation, that make a people, then there’s not going to be anymore people.
As for me, I want my life to be a legacy of love.”
WASP Final Flight
Wings Across America
Texas Women’s University, Denton, Texas. WASP collection