By Karel Lucander
She was working in research and development in chemistry and physics at a Fortune 500 company when, at age 29, she first met a Sister of Mercy. Through that sister, she connected to a group of sisters working close to her home, among the economically disadvantaged. She knew at once that these women understood her values. She would travel with several of them on mission trips to Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala before entering the Sisters of Mercy in 1994.
Today Sister Paula Cockerham ministers in what was once an idyllic Savannah, Georgia, neighborhood that’s now blighted, and its residents are economically crippled. “Those we serve have been dealt a difficult hand, and many hurdles stand in their paths,” Sister Paula says. “Their struggles bring me to my knees.”
Assisting with economic self-sufficiency
As financial coach and adult educator at St. Mary’s Community Center (an outreach of St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System), she helps area residents and homeless people navigate a road that can lead to financial self-sufficiency. Sometimes she teaches math and science to a small group preparing for their GEDs or entrance exams to a technical college. Other times, she consults one-on-one about setting up a bank account, establishing credit, looking into an employer’s retirement plan, or getting income taxes done free of charge.
“It is very individualized attention,” she says, adding that there is also a group of seniors from the neighborhood who need assistance with day-to-day tasks, including insurance and medical issues. “Many stay locked in their homes, surrounded by abandoned houses,” she says.
Safe haven from life’s storm
With a background in chemistry and having taught ninth-grade science at St. Vincent’s Academy in Savannah before landing in her latest ministry, Sister Paula’s real alchemy seems to be her compassion for and love of the people here.
“They are no-frills people, not pretentious, just surviving,” she says. “We have regulars who come to see us because we treat them with respect and dignity, which they deserve. When you live on the street, you get shunned and people turn the other way. This is their haven, an oasis in a very bad area. It’s where the Sisters of Mercy belong and where I belong.”
Mercy knows no bounds
Although her title might signify one thing, Sister Paula emphasizes that lines are constantly blurred and the heart knows no bounds when it comes to serving those you care about.
“While my roles are adult education and financial coaching, I regularly encounter people in critical situations,” she says. “One morning ‘Millie’ came in. She was young and living on the streets. She had told herself that if she could just get to St. Mary’s, Sister Catherine would help her. We have no Sister Catherine here. Could she have encountered ‘Catherine’s [McAuley’s] spirit’ in times past? All I could do was give her something to eat. As I watched her eat SpaghettiOs, I realized I was staring into the face of Jesus, present in the person of Millie. Twice she thanked me for my kindness. My ministry here is so much a ministry of presence, a ministry of kindness. I believe that Mercy homes in on those, such as Millie, in dire straits.”