Isabelle Paul has led the good fight for years as commander of the Order of St. John
I’d seen her for years, at this or that event. Posture ramrod straight, her jet-black hair with its distinctive white streak swept up in a French twist, and the sleeves. The sleeves, invariably fashioned with tiny puffs along the shoulder seams. And it was those sleeves I was most curious about. I finally met Isabelle Paul for lunch, mostly to talk to her about the charitable Order of St. John, of which she is commander.
“It’s one of the oldest organizations of the world; it goes back to the Crusades,” she told me. “We are not a charity; we help charities. We are a chivalry order. Our mission is to help the sick and the poor; I like to help the poorest of the poor.”
The order is formally known as The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitalier, and is based in Malta. It describes itself as “an Order of Chivalry dedicated to the service of all humanity in the name of Christ. It is an ecumenical, international Christian order directly descended from the Order of St. John founded by the Blessed Gerard in the late 11th century.”
Paul was tapped to join by the late Countess Henrietta de Hoernle, herself a dame in the order, and she was later “asked by Malta” to start a Florida branch, which she has led since 2011.
Paul has always been involved in philanthropy; she and her late husband, Lawrence Maxwell Paul, were benefactors of many charities, including the Mayo Clinic, Salvation Army, World Vision International and more. They met at a Montego Bay, Jamaica, resort he owned and had a long-distance romance (she lived in Canada and he was from Cincinnati) for a time until they married. Lawrence was a successful developer and also manufactured parts for the space program and the Polaris submarine. The couple “traveled the world” and lived for a time in Bal Harbour before buying a house in Royal Palm in Boca Raton in 1977. Ten years later, when Lawrence died, Paul found herself at a particular axis in her life.
“After my husband passed away in 1987,” she says, “I decided I was going to dedicate the rest of my life working for the lord. Because that’s what I want to do. I’ve always been very spiritual.
“I was very charitable before he died, and I was not interested in remarrying. I was interested in carrying on the mission I felt comfortable with.”
That mission has wound its way throughout Boca Raton, from board positions at the Friends of the Conservatory of Music, Lynn University and Debbie-Rand, to St. Gergory’s Episcopal Church, Boca Helping Hands and more. But her biggest impact is the one she delivers through The Order; the list of 25 well-known charities it has helped so far include HomeSafe,Place of Hope, Caridad Center, Covenant House, Cross Ministries, Association of Caregiving Youth and many, many more.
“I feel wonderful helping other people,” Paul says. “This entails a lot of work, and it involves many hours, but I took an oath when I became a member of The Order of St. John, and I just feel like I should live up to that oath.”
Paul has stories about Billy Graham, and the time the late virtuoso pianist Roger Williams bequeathed a special Steinway to her, which she donated to Lynn Conservatory (she admits she’s no piano player herself).
She also has an interest in painting porcelain and, more recently, religious icons. It is this artistic side to her that brings us back to those sleeves, which I have to know about once and for all.
“I design my own clothes,” she says, when I ask, slipping off her light sweater to reveal tiny puffed sleeves underneath. “I like a certain style. I don’t care what Bill Blass does or Gucci or whoever does. … The dressmaker I have right now—I’ve worked with her for years—is very good. I think I’ve bought one dress in the last 50 years.”
Paul admits to loving beautiful fabrics and preferring ladylike, feminine clothing, but she really thinks her work with The Order is far more interesting. Before we go, she touches the shimmering gold Maltese cross she is wearing.
“I designed this cross,” she says. “My husband had a very heavy wedding band, and I thought rather than it just being there … I took it to the jeweler and I said, ‘Could you melt it down?’ And I designed this cross. The ruby is from a ring he bought me when we were on our honeymoon in Beirut, Lebanon. We were going around the world. So it has some meaning now.”