Tutor Mary Ellen Caldwell, BVM presents Madeleine Gendry, OCSO with an achievement certificate in English.

Mary Ellen Caldwell, BVM: Powerhouse in a Small Package

“I am an American sister. I do not speak the language.” Mary Ellen Caldwell, BVM (Eugenio) has learned to say this phrase in eight foreign tongues. When she began teaching preschool over 70 years ago, it looked like a lifework. The oldest of eight children, she had a lot of experience with little ones and loved teaching them; at 5 feet tall, she was safe from the backaches that often affect teachers of tiny people.

However, in 1956 she was appointed principal of St. Patrick School in Dubuque, Iowa, and taught eighth graders bigger than she. While there, she studied theology in Marquette University’s summer program in Milwaukee, newly opened to non-seminarians; in 1962 she moved uphill in Dubuque to teach theology and scripture at Clarke University and stayed 25 years, during which she took more summer theology classes and workshops across the country.

Other Ministries Beckon

In 1973, Mary Ellen and BVMs Carol Frances Jegen and Betty Pleas (St. Laura) had a free day after an institute on Ignatian Spirituality in San Francisco. They spent it picketing with farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez, were arrested, and entered—not another nation—but another world in a Fresno jail for two weeks. Mary Ellen said, “I was angry about the treatment given to hardworking farm workers; they didn’t deserve to be treated as criminals. It was an honor to be with them and a special privilege to spend time with Dorothy Day who came to California to join us.”

This unexpected sojourn delayed Mary Ellen’s departure for a year’s study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The following summer, she and her BVM little (in both senses) sister, Mary Remi Caldwell, toured western Europe and added more languages to her pet phrase.

The next year Mary Ellen became a member of the BVM committee writing a new Constitution, as directed by Vatican Council II. That was a 15-year project, with many meetings and much input from BVMs, canonists, and other religious congregations doing the same work. Deanna Marie Carr, BVM (Bernita) initially led the committee and Mary Ellen chaired at the end.

In 1988, Mary Ellen retired from Clarke to complete Constitution work and prepare the records for the Mount Carmel Archives. “Membership on the Constitution committee, working with wonderful people, was a privilege,” she said. “When Helen Garvey and her Council went to Rome for approval of the document, they didn’t have to take me, but I loved being in Rome again and participating in the dialogue at the Vatican.”

Teaching Expands to Africa, Europe and ‘Back Home Again’

While in Rome, Mary Ellen visited one of her former instructors who prompted, “In Africa they are desperate for seminary teachers.” Having spent an earlier summer in Kenya, she was open to going again. For 2 1/2 years she taught at St. Hubert Seminary in Kumasi, Ghana, where Mary Ann Hoope, BVM (Bernarde Marie), another theologian, works at the Centre for Spiritual Renewal. In Ghana she added some new languages for her favorite phrase and got used to being addressed as “old woman,” a title of high respect there, where most people don’t live long and revere those who do.

When Mary Ellen returned to the United States, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was recruiting volunteers for the Catholic Bishops’ Program of Aid to the Catholic Church in central and eastern Europe. “The bishops could send money, but they asked LCWR for help sisters could give—mostly education, but some sisters did oral histories and a film about sisters’ experience under Communism,” Mary Ellen shared.

Four times she went to Budapest for two-month sessions to teach English in classes organized by the Hungarian Sisters’ Council. More languages. Some young Hungarian sisters had been admitted to graduate schools in the United States. Mary Ellen arranged for them to live with retired BVMs in Chicago while improving their English.

Coming home for good, Mary Ellen taught Scripture classes in the Roberta Kuhn Center (RKC) at Mount Carmel, Dubuque, for five years, but finally retired to private tutoring in English for select foreign students. However, she is open to other possibilities!

—by Mary A. Healey, BVM (Michael Edward)