Although she never fulfilled her wish to serve as a missionary in Africa, Sister Juliana Paladini says she is filled with gratitude and happy memories for the many years she had with her community’s day care centers where she came in joyful contact with black American children.
“I felt I was fulfilling my vocation because I was working with the children of Africa because these children were descendants of the African race,” she said.
Sister Juliana, who entered the Comboni Missionary Sisters more than 60 years ago, shared thoughts of her religious vocation with The Catholic Virginian as she prepared to leave Richmond for Italy Feb. 21 where she will live in retirement with others in her community and live closer to her relatives.
She recalled that she wanted to be with the Comboni Missionary Sisters who at the time of her entrance were known as the Missionary Sisters of Verona. The community name was later changed to reflect the vision of Bishop Daniel Comboni, who sought to evangelize the people of Africa who had little or no knowledge of Christianity.
Now 85, Sister Juliana entered her religious community in October 1950 when she was 18. Her vocation took root on what was known as Mission Sunday in her parish. Her mother and father had tried to persuade her to wait until she was 21.
“I told my parents on my 18th birthday, Jan. 9, in 1950,” she said, adding that the family lived in Albino in the Province of Bergamo.
“My father said ‘Your have to wait until you’re 21,” Sister Juliana recalled. “He tried to get others to dissuade me.”
Her mother was also reluctant to see her only daughter and second of her two children leave the family home. Sister Juliana remembers what her mother told a friend when the parish took up a second collection for the missions at Sunday Mass.
“My mother said ‘I gave much more than what I put in the basket,’” Sister Juliana said.
But with time, her mother and father accepted the call their daughter received.
“I really felt the Lord was calling me,” Sister Juliana said. “I had no reason other than that.
“I wanted to be a Comboni Missionary Sister,” she continued. “I fell in love with Daniel Comboni’s mission in Africa.”
But she never got to Africa. She came from Italy to Richmond where she worked at a day care center in the Fulton Bottom neighborhood and then spent a year at St. Gerard’s day care center. This was the time of racial segregation and all the children in the programs were black.
“In Fulton Bottom I was teaching the children the catechism,” Sister Juliana said. “They were from age two to five.”
Many years later she was blessed to “know some of the children I had taught who were now adults.”
She remembers a conversation with a mother who had recently moved to Richmond from Chicago. The woman was the wife of a physician and wanted to find a day care program for their oldest daughter.
“She asked me ‘Do you accept black children?’” Sister Juliana recalls, adding this was during a time when integration was just beginning. She readily told the mother “yes.”
“Only one or two families withdrew their children because we were integrating,” Sister Juliana said.
She entered St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg, Md. and after four years of academia, she received a B.A. degree to teach French in secondary schools in 1963.
“But I never taught French because that same year Our Lady of Lourdes School opened.”
Bishop John J. Russell asked the Comboni Missionary Sisters to staff the school which had opened with only one grade and agreed to add a new grade each year.
“I was the first teacher and was the principal for eight years until 1971,” Sister Juliana said.
“When I went to Our Lady of Lourdes, I was qualified to teach in elementary school,” she said, explaining that she had taken courses at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“In 1976 I went to Rome for a meeting of the General Chapter for the congregation and they asked me to remain there as Secretary General.
“I had left Richmond thinking I would be going to the missions,” Sister Juliana said. “Before I left people would ask me ‘Where in Africa are you going?’”
But it was not to be.
When she was asked at the end of the General Chapter meeting to take on the duties of Secretary General, she told the superior “I’m not a secretary, I’m a teacher.
“But she answered ‘If you’re a teacher, you can be Secretary General.’”
The end result was that Sister Juliana stayed with the worldwide headquarters of the Comboni Missionary Sisters from 1976 to 1984 when she went to Jerusalem.
“I was Provincial Superior for six years until 1990,” she said. “We had sisters in Jordan, Bahrain and Dubai.”
On her return to the U.S. in 1990 she managed the Holy Angels Day Care Center, then located in its own building on the large grounds of the community’s home in the Lakeside neighborhood of Henrico County.
“We had at least 60 children, many of whom were here from 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the afternoon.
“I also taught in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) at Our Lady of Lourdes.”
Another ministry in which Sister Juliana was involved was bringing a Christian spiritual presence to residents of Manor Care, a home for elderly not far from the Comboni Missionary Sisters convent.
“I did an ecumenical service every other Sunday,” she said. “I used the liturgical readings for that Sunday and I encouraged the people to sing,” she explained, adding that few of those attending the service were Catholic.
As of now, there are only seven sisters at the Comboni convent in Lakeside. “This is the smallest we’ve ever been,” Sister Juliana said.
“I’ll miss the sisters and our friends,” she said, but I will be with my sisters who are retired, (in Italy)” she pointed out. “All of us are well cared for and are living in community in one of our homes.”
Realizing that she has spent a total of 50 years in Richmond, Sister Juliana says she leaves with gratitude for the kindness people have shown her.
“I feel I have received much more from the people of this country than I have given,” she said. “I will always cherish the memories of these years I spent in the U.S.”
She has a brother, who will be 91 this month, his two children and extended family in Italy.
“I’ll be seeing my family more often and that is a plus,” she said.