At the motherhouse of the Daughters of St Paul, in Alba, Italy, the year 1931 was marked by great missionary enthusiasm among the Daughters of St. Paul. It was the foundational, charismatic period of the Congregation and the missions were enthusing many young sisters who wanted to spread the Gospel in nations outside Italy. Prima Maestra Thecla Merlo told the Daughters of St. Paul that sisters would be sent to open communities in other countries, and that anyone who felt called to the missions should hand in a written request. Among those who applied were Maestra Paula Cordero (1908-1991) and Maestra Filippina Badanelli (1909-1938). They wrote their requests on the same sheet of paper.
Several times, Maestra Paula had openly expressed her desire to go to Sao Paolo, Brazil. She was attracted to Sao Paolo because a Brazilian benefactor had told her about the country and the good that was to be done there. Maestra Paula also knew that Portuguese would be easy for her to learn.
One day, during a meal at the motherhouse, the names of the sisters chosen for Latin America were announced. When Maestra Paula realized that her name was not among them, she was deeply disappointed and began to cry. Maestra Brigida Perron called Maestra Paula aside and told her not to cry because sisters were still to be chosen for the United States. Maestra Brigida spoke encouragingly about New York; however, this was of small consolation to the eager missionary-to-be, who feared the difficulty of learning English.
Born Adele Cordero in 1908, Maestra Paula had grown up in Priocca D'Alba, Italy. Adele's parents, Stefano and Carolina, reared their eight children with love, piety and the austerity characteristic of the period. Adele attended but three years of elementary school, where she received a basic education. On Christmas Eve, 1926, seventeen-year-old Adele entered the Daughters of St. Paul. One year later she made her first religious profession and received the name "Paula."
"I remember that Maestra Paula would go to bed at two or three o'clock in the morning," Sr. Sabina recounted, "and often she wouldn't find her bed, because someone else would be in it. There weren't enough beds for everyone at the time."
The sisters of the “first hour” were hard workers, who made by hand the bricks with which the Church of St. Paul in Alba was constructed. As many sisters testify, Maestra Paula was known for her continual generosity, a characteristic that she exemplified until her death.
Soon after the sisters who were missioned to Brazil were selected, the superiors told Maestra Paula that she would be going to the United States. In May 1932, Maestra Paula received legal clearance for the voyage to New York and on June 8, 1932, Maestra Paula and Sr. Anita, together with a Disciple of the Divine Master, Sr. Ignatius Biello (1908-1988), and Fr. Stanislaus Crovella, from the Society of Saint Paul embarked in Naples, bound for the United States. This was the first time the twenty-four-year-old Maestra Paula had left Piedmont, Italy.
Prima Maestra Thecla had slipped a letter in their luggage, so they would find it when they were aboard. She wrote:
To you who are leaving our temporary homeland I send my greeting and best wishes from the bottom of my heart—a greeting in the Lord as good sisters, bound together by the same tie of love for Jesus. I wish that the new land to which you are going may be first of the fields in which you will attain sanctity. Become great saints! May the great sacrifices awaiting you there be rendered sweet by the thought of heaven and by the hope of bringing many souls to the Lord.
Do not become discouraged if you do not see the good you are doing to souls. Most of the time we are more useful in a hidden life, in hidden sacrifice, than in the fervor of a noisy apostolate. First of all let us try to get rid of our ego, which is the ruin of everything. Then the Lord certainly will come, and with him everything will be accomplished; rather, he will do everything. It is enough that we remove the impediments. Courage! Here there are persons very close to you who follow you step by step, who think of you and pray for you. If you wish to have deep peace and charity among yourselves, let each one be always willing to take the blame for what goes wrong. We all have many faults in the sight of God. Isn't it true?
... Be serene, write often; do not be afraid of bothering me; you know how eagerly your letters are awaited. Depart in the name of the Most Holy Trinity—in this sacred name, just as we will leave for eternity. May the most Holy Trinity bless you: the Heavenly Father who created you, the Divine Son who died for you, the Holy Spirit who sanctified you.
Begin your apostolate right on the ship, giving much good example of serenity and religious spirit. You are three; you form the Holy Family. Be willing to imitate the virtues of the Holy Family. I am enclosing a small souvenir. Have a good trip!
Prima Maestra Thecla gave the sisters 4000 lire for the trip. After they arrived in New York, they returned the 4000 lire to the needy motherhouse in Alba and relied instead on 90 lire they had received aboard the ship.
Maestra Paula and the others arrived in New York on Tuesday, June 28, 1932. It was an extremely difficult time in American history, at the height of the Great Depression. On July 24, 1932, Maestra Paula Cordero professed her final vows. She had not yet been one month in the United States.
When the Great Depression reached its nadir in 1933, almost half of the nation’s banks had failed and 24.9% of American workers were unemployed. Another 25% either sustained wage cuts or were forced into part time work. That year the remaining banks placed an average of 1,000 homes in foreclosure every day. By 1934, there would be about one million people on public relief in New York City alone. With such glaring economic and social deprivation, it was difficult for most Americans who encountered the sisters to understand, much less appreciate, a mission in which women religious, in a thoroughly unconventional way, ministered to spiritual, rather than material, needs.
So many odds were against them that by human means, it was fair to say, they never would succeed. They daily faced eviction from the archdiocese of New York. One day, Maestra Paula and the superior met with the chancellor of the Archdiocese. Without giving them much of a hearing, he dismissed them with a promise that he would send the community a letter confirming the cardinal’s refusal to let them stay. They dropped a medal of Mary, Queen of the Apostles and St. Paul in the heating grate outside the chancery, another behind the cardinal’s chair at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a third at home in the mailbox. The letter never arrived. In fact, later in 1934, through the efforts of a priest who served on the board of consultors, they were given permission to remain in New York.
Despite the difficult language barrier, the sisters visited both Italian and English-speaking families. They had a few Italian books, as well as an English Bible, all printed in Alba.
In the difficulties and poverty of those founding years, Mother Paula and the first sisters were happy. In the evenings the sisters produced books in their small apostolate room, attached to the garage. The room contained a few second-hand bindery machines: a gilding press, a machine to staple small booklets, a four-arm sewing machine and a single-knife trimmer. The priests and brothers of the Society of St. Paul and the Daughters worked together on many projects. The sisters would fold and sew the printed sheets that the priests brought to them.
In October, 1934, the first American vocation, Mary Louise Carini, entered the small community. She was later given the name Sr. Mary Celeste and received the religious habit on June 28, 1935, in the small Byron Avenue apartment.
As new sisters began to arrive from Italy, the Pauline mission began to expand. In 1937 diocesan approval was granted to the Daughters of Saint Paul in New York. In 1938 the sisters began to carry out their mission in nearby cities, and in Connecticut and Vermont, as well as in the smaller cities of Massachusetts, like Framingham, Worcester, and Fitchburg. In 1939 the sisters bought the large Benziger Brothers’ Estate on Staten Island, the first home that they owned.