Sister Paula Vandegaer’s commitment to life has been in effect for more than a generation. Since 1967, she has been involved in the formation of hundreds of pregnancy counseling centers, whether by consultation, training, education of pregnancy counselors or procuring of funding and resources. 

Vandegaer and DiNardo
Sister Paula Vandegaer with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Vincent Rue at the People of Life Awards. USCCB photo

“I’ve been in this movement from the beginning,” Sister Paula told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Since that beginning, she has founded International Life Services, Volunteers for Life and Scholl Institute of Bioethics. She has trained and ministered to countless people, and she is the best-selling author of the first textbook written for pro-life counselors. 

Sister Paula has also lectured and performed counseling training throughout the United States and overseas. She has written articles on teenage sexuality, pro-life counseling and biomedical issues, as well as developed teaching videos on counseling, public speaking and agency management. 

Her longtime commitment to life earned her the 2012 People of Life Award, which she received in August at the Diocesan Pro-Life Leadership Conference in Anaheim, Calif. (See sidebar for more details.)

Early beginnings

The youngest of three girls from Kansas City, Mo., she had a Catholic upbringing that was instrumental in forming both her religious vocation and her pro-life work. 

“I really considered my parents to be saints,” she said. “I felt I came from such a good family. We weren’t wealthy at all, yet I felt I had something I should share. I felt I had to give.” 

Sister Paula recalled a very peaceful home, where she would sit on her mother’s lap in her rocking chair and pray the Rosary with her. 

“It was just a lovely, lovely experience,” said Sister Paula. 

Sister Paula debated between religious life and lay ministry right after high school, and casually thought if it was God’s will, it would happen. Both of the options would take her far away from her family, and she had learned that her parents worried significantly about her leaving; her father dropped weight with the concern and her mother cried herself to sleep at night. 

This was not lost on Sister Paula. She remembered that when each of her older sisters got married and left home, her father reached over and blessed them. 

People of Life Award
Nineteen people have been chosen to win the People of Life Award since its inception in 2007. The award recognizes Catholics who exemplify the call by Pope John Paul II in “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) to dedicate themselves to pro-life activities and promoting respect for the dignity of the human person. People of Life is the pro-life action campaign of the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. Its mission is to activate the Church, its people and its institutions to defend life through a four-pronged program of prayer and worship, public education and information, public policy efforts and pastoral care called the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. Tools utilized are education, advocacy, information, media, prayers and organization at the grass-roots level. The campaign goal is to stop the intentional destruction of human life. 

“That was a significant thing,” she said. 

Although her father extended that same blessing to her when her time came to leave for the Sisters of Social Service community in California, it was not without sacrifice. 

“When the train left and I looked out and my parents were standing there in tears, I knew whatever was at the other end of that train, I would make it work,” Sister Paula said.  

Thinking now about where she is today and where she started can sometimes elicit laughter from Sister Paula. 

“I always knew there were three things I didn’t want to do,” she told OSV. “One was to be a nun — they were too stuffy. Two was to teach — that was very boring. And three was to write — I didn’t like writing.” 

Big problems ahead

The life issue drew out her gifts from early on. In 1971, a couple of years before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on the national level, several states were already liberalizing abortion laws. Among them was California, where Sister Paula worked. 

“I’ll never forget the girl who told me she was going to place her baby for adoption,” she said. 

When the young woman went to apply for public assistance, Sister Paula said the staff said to her, “Why are you going to do anything like that?” This wasn’t something that was done by the new modern woman. 

“By the time she came back to me she was so shaken up,” Sister Paula said. “I realized that we were in for a big problem.” 

She’s been fighting for life ever since. 

Among the first things Sister Paula did was to establish a hot line to counsel pregnant women, which kept the volunteers who staffed it very busy. 

“We worked very, very hard,” she said. “It was kind of a job; no one had ever done that.” 

Making a difference

Her approach to ministry applied social work principles, like accepting people, being nonjudgmental. Her ministry led her to writing the textbook for pro-life counselors. 

Sister Paula Vandegaer

“I didn’t realize I was writing the first training manual for pregnancy counseling centers,” Sister Paula told OSV. 

Her manual was shared with some 60 pro-life groups from across the United States at a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathering.  

“Many people asked for it,” Sister Paula said. “I still see bits and piece in people’s training manuals.” 

International Life Services, which she still leads, is now in the process of opening its 44th pregnancy service center. 

“I have always felt that I’m in the movement because of the women,” Sister Paula said. “I was horrified by what was happening to women.” 

She said the birth-control pill played a role in the push toward liberalized sex. 

“I wanted women to have a sense of their own dignity,” said Sister Paula. “That deteriorated profusely with the advent of the pill.” 

Being on the front lines of the fight for life from the beginning of the sexual revolution, she recognized two things right away. 

One was the sexual enslavement of women. The second was the fact that the same attitude that accompanies acceptance of abortion would give rise to euthanasia. 

“That was a sleeping giant,” said Sister Paula. 

She was writing articles on euthanasia in Heartbeat Magazine early in her work, along with pieces on abstinence, pregnancy counseling, the pill and issues in other countries resulting from lack of regard for life. 

A lasting passion

Sister Paula is now counseling the third generation of women since the beginning of the cultural liberation of women in the United States. 

She still practices counseling two days a week. One thing she told OSV she did not anticipate was the unwillingness of many women to get married. Sister Paula said that this — sex in the name of freedom — and the huge deterioration of the family all go hand-in-hand with the pill and the false idea of women’s freedom that is so pervasive in society. 

“It’s very worrisome to me,” she said. “Somehow I always knew that was not the instrument of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “That was the instrument of the enemy.” 

The persistence of people who love life has sustained her. 

“The most thrilling thing for me consistently has been to see the new pregnancy service centers start,” said Sister Paula. “And to see the Holy Spirit call people forth in the leadership of this movement.” 

She has found support for life to be life-giving. 

“Our enemies can’t get rid of us,” Sister Paula said. “We’re not going to die out.” 

Sister Paul sees contraception as a big battle issue right now. 

“It’s difficult to put in a few words why I am opposed to contraception, why it’s so wrong,” she told OSV. “Most people feel that contraceptives are such a wonderful thing, to most people contraception is a god. People just turn off.” 

At the same time contraception is so prevalent, which leads to a significant issue for Sister Paula — the lack of awareness and promotion of natural family planning and recognition of the dignity of the human person. 

And so she continues on in her ministry. 

“We are all just trying to move this forward,” Sister Paula said. “God only has so many people. We’re all he’s got, he has to inspire us.” 

Specifically, a resurgence of the integrity of women is needed, she said, and women are key to maintaining the family. For this, she continues to fight. 

“I feel like I’m the Lord’s little donkey,” Sister Paula told OSV. “I can take a heavy load, he can put anything on me, but he has to tell me where to go. I just go wherever I’m lead.” 

Lisa Bourne writes from Iowa.