The Pet Projects Of Sister Pauline -- A Maverick Nun Builds Her Esteem While Aiding Others

GIG HARBOR - Midmorning at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women.

Sister Pauline Quinn, a maverick Dominican nun who describes herself as "a different sister," is here visiting from Wisconsin, basking in the glow of a television that roars above the sound of barking dogs.

Her navy blue habit is covered in blow-dried dog hair. Her hands and wrists carry scars from years of horror, when she was hog-tied and chained to posts as a teenager in adult psychiatric wards in the 1950s.

On the TV screen, a taped national news program sings the praises of the Prison Pet Partnership Program, which Sister Pauline started here 17 years ago, believing that prisoners - who learn to train service dogs for people with disabilities - could gain self-confidence from putting others first.

The pet partnership program is considered a win-win-win situation, says the TV commentator, since it also saves the lives of castoff dogs.

Sister Pauline sits back and soaks up the glory, though the benefit is fleeting. Not even national recognition of the program's success can stop Sister Pauline's lifelong leak of self-esteem. At 55, she still struggles to tip the balance of what's good and bad in life.

On the good side, she's saved more than 150 refugees in the past 15 years, deliberately seeking the most desperate and difficult to aid, with and without the support of her church.

On the bad side, she can't understand people in power who could help but turn away from suffering.

She can't turn away; she's been there. She describes her early life with the words "torture," "trauma" and "pain." Until a German shepherd named Joni turned her life around in her early 20s, she was expected to die on the streets of Los Angeles.

Some officials in the Catholic Church don't know what to make of her. She was institutionalized 36 times in her teens. She approaches her rescue work with such singlemindedness, she's been called "an embarrassment" by one church official.

But she has her supporters, including the master of the Dominican order, Father Timothy Radcliffe.

Christ loved all, and He knows the hearts of the people who really want to do good, she says, but the church is more discriminating.

"I have had to fight every inch of the way."

If people only understood her, she says, maybe they wouldn't shun her but instead help her fight for the poor and unwanted.

"So I have come to the conclusion that I want to share my story," says Sister Pauline, who invited her listener to come to the prison, site of her first triumph. "I'm ashamed of my life, but I shouldn't be because I did nothing wrong."

Convinced she was worthless

Sister Pauline was born Kathy Quinn in Los Angeles.

The earliest details of her life are sketchy, and deliberately so. She will say only that she came from "an extremely dysfunctional family" where she was convinced that she was worthless.

Her home life had that Southern California glow, appearing perfect to the outside world, she says. But she found the mental distress unbearable and began running away at age 13.

In the 1950s, there was no place to put kids who weren't delinquents but were chronic runaways.

"Those were the days when they stuck kids in with adults in psychiatric hospitals," says Ruth Olson, who was Kathy Quinn's social worker in Los Angeles. "Here was this little girl who wasn't mentally ill put in with adults who were."

The adults underwent shock treatment and lobotomies. Quinn says she was threatened with both.

She was "depersonalized," she says, molested by doctors and hospital aides, something her father confirms today in a letter, although he moved out of the family home when she was very young.

"Who would believe me?" Sister Pauline asks now. "I was extremely powerless."

She started attacking herself with razors, knives and flames, "an out for terrible abuse" that took her 25 years to control, she says. Quoting experts today, she describes the syndrome as "transferring unbearable emotional pain into manageable physical pain."

Her lack of self-confidence was difficult for others to witness. At 20, she couldn't speak face to face, Olson recalls. Kathy Quinn hid behind curtains to talk or stood behind her listener's back.

Life was no better outside the institutions. In the beginning, she was always returned home. Later, she lived on the streets, staying in abandoned buildings, which she left only at night.

Police officers picked her up on vagrancy laws, she says. Eventually, she was impregnated by one who drove her to the edge of town where no one could hear her screams, she says.

"You wouldn't believe the horrible things she went through," says Olson, who remains in contact.

Quinn lived with the help of nuns in Los Angeles. She gave up the baby at 6 months old, one day after she and the baby were baptized. It was a deep shame, she says, because of society's treatment.

By 1966, Quinn knew she needed a friend, but she still was in no condition to make human contact.

With the tenacity that later would help her serve others, she wrote to kennels listed in the back of dog magazines until she found one in Texas that agreed to give her a German shepherd, if she'd pay the freight.

"Joni was really my first link to power," she says today.

Police didn't stop Quinn when she walked down the street with the dog by her side. Joni became a magnet to people who wanted to talk. As long as their eyes were on the dog, Quinn could respond.

"Little by little, it changed her life," Olson says. "It was her way of being socialized."

Travelers, not vagrants

Eventually, Quinn added a second and then a third dog. She met a friend who also was on the street and found a dog for her. Rather than being vagrants, they decided to be travelers.

In 1967, at age 24, Quinn and her friend and four dogs took off across the country. They traveled by freight car or hitching rides. At night they tied the dogs to their hands and feet for protection.

Quinn was forced to find homes for the dogs - even Joni - in Kansas City. But she continued to travel, going first to the British Isles to spend time with a nun "who changed my life," then back home to California and then to Alaska, where she was homeless once more.

At last she ended up in Everett, where she used state assistance to train as a photographer.

She was on welfare when she came up with the idea of taking animals into an institution to see if she could use the animal-human bond to help people like her.

"There are so many wounded people out there, wounded through no fault of their own," Sister Pauline says now. "They need to be understood."

At a conference in the late 1970s, she heard about Dr. Leo Bustad, who already was doing similar work as chair of Washington State University's respected veterinarian program.

Quinn shared her idea with Bustad, who understood her dilemma. How could she - with her history - convince institutions that she was legitimate? He agreed to put his reputation on the line.

Sister Pauline says today she believes Bustad understood her suffering because he was a former prisoner of war.

Linda Hines, who was working with Bustad in Pullman on other programs that used animal compassion to help people in need, says Bustad always was open to new ideas. It was clear that Quinn had insight.

"She has a genuine love of people and animals," says Hines, now CEO and president of the Delta Society, which encourages the use of animals for healing. As would always be the case, Quinn had no resources, Hines says, but she knew how to "survive by her wits."

Quinn was a client with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation when she made a video of a dog she had trained to help people in wheelchairs. She bought a briefcase and pretended she was a professional.

The state's mental health department turned down the idea but, with Bustad's support, the department of corrections went for it.

A successful program

The Prison Pet Partnership Program became official in 1981. Quinn stayed only a year, but the program continued to grow and strengthen.

Today, prisoners who learn to groom or train dogs are so successful, retiring director Jeanne Hampl says she gets calls from potential employers asking when the next inmate is getting out.

Money the prisoners bring in from boarding, grooming and training privately owned dogs foots the bill for training service dogs that are given free to people with disabilities.

Institutions all over the country have copied the program. Sister Pauline helped start one last year at a men's prison near her home in Wisconsin.

"I am very proud of her," says Olson, her former social worker. "That she is well-adjusted now is just amazing."

The hard work really was just beginning for Kathy Quinn when she left Gig Harbor in the early 1980s.

She went to Italy, where she began helping refugees who'd fled Africa, finding permanent homes for many in Canada and the United States. She was beginning to understand her calling in life, which was to put her suffering to good use by helping others.

She came back to the U.S., where she was accepted for training by Franciscan sisters. She had supporters, but it was a long battle to be accepted. One who understood, she says, was her spiritual adviser, Father Michael Stock, a psychologist.

Finally, someone who had seen her work in Italy, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, the Co-Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, took responsibility for her and heard her vows. He wasn't entirely sure about her - in the beginning she had to renew her vows yearly - but he approved of her vocation.

"To think how busy he is, with so many problems in Chiapas, but he still had time to be supportive of me," Sister Pauline says.

That's how it should be done, she says. We all need love and kindness and understanding. Help people reach their potential by pouring out love, not judgments; look at what they can contribute rather than being fearful they will be an embarrassment.

"This is what makes people heal."

A life of poverty

Although Sister Pauline lives and works within a cloistered community when she's in Italy, she belongs to no community in the U.S.

The price she pays is poverty. She lives on $200 a month, staying for free in a dark basement in Green Bay, where she tends a family's dogs.

It's worth it to maintain her independence. She goes wherever she feels she's needed, using her network of contacts to pay her way.

"I only wish I were in a position to help her more," says Bustad from Pullman, where he is retired.

When she heard that mentally retarded children were struggling to put on their gas masks during the Gulf War, she boarded a plane for Israel.

She keeps the letter of thanks attesting to her good work there in a notebook that never leaves her side. Like her nun's habit, such letters are her cloak of respectability.

"My only interest is in some small way to aid her worthy endeavors," her father writes in one letter, "something I was unable to do in her formative years."

Sister Pauline seeks always to help the most difficult cases. Among other triumphs:

-- She found a loving home in the U.S. for a little Croatian boy who had no arms or legs.

-- She arranged to get a paralyzed young man through an underground tunnel out of Sarajevo. She battled with officials along the way, and, with no financial backing, arranged airline transportation to the U.S. Then she went back and got his family so they could support him.

"I will not let anyone crush my vocation," Sister Pauline says. "Being a Dominican has given me a sense of purpose. Now I have such power inside me I am not afraid of anyone."

It has been a long struggle, but Sister Pauline has managed to put all of her life experiences to good use.

At the correctional center, a television commentator now draws her attention. The sentiment being expressed on the videotape about the Prison Pet Partnership Program could be right out of Sister Pauline's history.

A prisoner tells how all her life she thought she was no good. But the dogs found something good in her. Each time she watches a dog trot away after months of training, she's sure the dog will share that good with someone who needs it.

The receiving end speaks up.

A man tells how he spent his days sitting in his apartment thinking about life in a wheelchair. Now he and his dog go to the park, the mall and coffee shops, where conversations tend to start with the same line, "What a neat dog!"

Sister Pauline can hardly sit still. All her life she fought to keep from being crushed by people who thought she was beyond redemption. Look at what the prisoner, the dog and the new owner have given each other - the power of positive self-worth!

"Nobody can be perfect in this life, but at least we can try to be better. Things like this are part of a chain reaction of good."