Dominican Sister Roberta Popara’s office — covered in images of saints, orchids and religious memorabilia — is the place where people have come for nearly two decades seeking spiritual guidance.
“That chair is where people sit when they come for spiritual direction,” said Sister Popara about the big easy chair in front of her that people settle into and feel at home. “I will miss the people sharing their stories.”
After 17 years of ministry, Sister Popara is leaving Florida. She came to the diocese in 2002 and has since served Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in North Palm Beach as part of the Passionist’s retreat team and as associate director of the center.
Before arriving at the center, Sister Popara followed a diverse path to religious life. After completing an undergraduate degree in computer programming from Illinois State University, Sister Popara landed a corporate job as a systems analysist. At this time, she didn’t have the slightest notion of working for God as a religious sister. Her corporation offered her additional opportunities to receive higher education, and so she earned a business degree in order to advance her career.
But God had other plans for her. Sister Popara was active in her busy parish and she developed a greater love for the Church and ministry work. She served on parish councils, helped with religious education and music ministry and served as a Hospice volunteer. “I kept saying yes to things,” Sister Popara said. “I started to get a sense of God’s call.”
Sister Popara began researching the various religious congregations and learned more about the Dominicans and their dedication to contemplation and action. “I realized the Dominican spirituality matched mine.” She entered the community in 1981, and earned a master’s degree in divinity, studied preaching and trained as a healthcare chaplain. Her biblical studies with a small group in the Middle East gave her the opportunity to explore the Holy Land.
She took final vows on July 22, 1983. This happened to be the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, who is known as the first disciple of the Lord and for announcing the news of the Lord’s resurrection. “She is the patron of the Dominicans, and she is my personal patroness. I think she had something to do with my vocation,” said Sister Popara.
A California native who grew up in the Midwest, Sister Popara is now returning to Illinois to join members of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, also known as the Most Holy Rosary of the Order of Preachers founded by St. Dominic. She plans to take a little time off to get settled and then return to ministry.
At a reception on June 2 at the spiritual center, parishioners and the community at large dropped by to visit Sister Popara on her last day. “To me, Sister Roberta is a model Catholic and Christian,” said Rabbi Stephen Pinsky of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis, an organization for the rabbinical community. He became good friends with Sister Popara through the Interfaith Clergy Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach, which both he and Sister Popara served as committee members. “We love her. She has been our teacher” he said about Sister Popara’s interfaith work, which aimed to brindge the gap between people of various religious backgrounds.
Over the years, Sister Popara served as a healthcare chaplain and worked in pastoral care at parishes. In Florida, she served homeless mothers living in local shelters and has been involved in initiatives against human trafficking and anti-racism. She continues to support fellow Dominican sisters working in Iraq.
“It was not my plan at all,” said Sister Popara when asked to reflect on her calling and religious vocation. “It is a gift from God. We are here on God’s behalf. We are here to be ambassadors of Christ. It is a gift not a duty.”
by Linda Reeves
Florida Catholic correspondent