As women were leaving religious life, Sister Cecilia Paganessi asked herself: “What would I be? Why would I leave? This is my life.” Now, 80 years after entering the Sisters of Providence, she is just as sure of her decision made at the tender age of 10, when she and her four sisters went to St. Thomas Home in Great Falls, Mont., after their mother’s death. “I liked the sisters who taught us and said I would be one someday,” she recalled.
Born in Centerville, Mont., after high school graduation in 1939 Cecilia enrolled at the College (now University) of Great Falls (CGF), where Sister Rita Mudd guided her toward becoming a sister. Cecilia entered the novitiate at Mount St. Vincent, Seattle, and made profession in 1943. CGF summer classes helped her earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame.
She became the sister that second-grade students looked up to at St. Francis Xavier grade school in Missoula, Mont., where Sister Virginia Cosner taught first grade. “Teaching in the classroom was our practice teaching,” Sister Cecilia explained. For 31 years she taught in parochial grade schools in Glasgow and Great Falls, Mont., Kellogg and Wallace, Idaho, and Colfax and Walla Walla, Wash. After studies at Kinman Business College in Spokane, she ministry transitioned to accounting as an accounts receivable clerk at CGF for eight years. “All the sisters in Great Falls were living on the campus then, almost 20 of them at one time,” she said.
Next came work in the provincial treasurer’s office in Spokane, community service, and the CREDO program at Gonzaga University. Her favorite ministry was in Walla Walla, Wash., doing projects for the poor, visiting and assisting neighbors and volunteering in the parish. Sister Cecilia gathered donated materials, scavenged an old English sewing machine that made a single stitch, and overhand stitched the edges of countless baby blankets for Hispanic women in St. Patrick’s parish. She also baked cookies and pies for neighbors.
“How the years go by,” she said with a wistful smile. For at least the last 10 years, Sister Cecilia has been living at Emilie Court in Spokane, where “the day goes pretty fast with prayer, meals, reading and naps.” This Jubilee will be low key. She has two remaining sisters living in Denver and south of Great Falls. “We always said we have good genes,” Sister Cecilia said.
She is full of admiration for the early sisters, especially Sisters Virginia Cosner and Peter Claver. “I am ready to have others take on our works,” Sister Cecilia said. “That way, places like St. Thomas Child and Family Center in Great Falls will continue even when we’re not there.”