Mary Ellen Caldwell, BVM (Eugenio) died Tuesday, Aug. 22, at Marian Hall in Dubuque, Iowa. Visitation will be from 9–11 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in the Marian Hall Chapel followed by a prayer service at 11 a.m. Funeral liturgy will be at 1:30 p.m. Burial is in the Mount Carmel cemetery.
She was born in Milwaukee on June 11, 1920, to Francis S. and Helen Fitzsimmons Caldwell. She entered the BVM congregation Sept. 8, 1938, from St. Michael Parish, Milwaukee. She professed first vows on March 19, 1941, and final vows on Aug. 15, 1946.
Sister Mary Ellen taught elementary school in DeKalb and Chicago, Ill.; and Wichita, Kan. She was elementary school principal in Dubuque, where she also served as theology, religious studies, and philosophy teacher and department chair at Clarke University. She taught at a seminary in Kumasi, Ghana, and later volunteered as ESL teacher.
She was preceded in death by her parents; a brother, James Joseph Caldwell; and sisters: Mary Remi Caldwell, BVM; Sarah Marie Tyson; and Frances Mary Kilcollins. She is survived by a sister, Helen Smith, Waukesha, Wis.; brothers, Rev. Thomas A. Caldwell, SJ, Wauwatosa, Wis.; and Joseph Kerwin Caldwell, New York, N.Y.; nieces; nephews; and the Sisters of Charity, BVM, with whom she shared life for 78 years.
Sister Mary Ellen Caldwell, BVM (Eugenio)
Marian Hall, Aug. 28, 2017
Good afternoon and welcome to the celebration of life of our Sister Mary Ellen Caldwell.
Mary Ellen Caldwell entered this world on June 11, 1920, as the eldest of eight children born to Francis and Hellen Fitzsimmons Caldwell of Milwaukee. Her siblings James Joseph, Rose, Helen Margaret, Thomas, Sarah Marie, Joseph Kerwin, and Frances Mary completed the family.
Mary Ellen loved music, especially opera and the classics. For many years, she held season tickets to the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra. She often told the story that in high school, she and her friends would go to the public library, check out operatic music scores and then gather around a piano and sing all the parts. After they saved enough money, they would attend a performance, sitting in the high balcony. Even in her later years, she could still sing the music. Later, while missioned at Mount Carmel Academy in Wichita, Kan., she asked Sister Grace Andrea Carolan, the voice teacher, to join her in the making of a record for her family, which was very popular at that time. She would often quip, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Mary Ellen graduated from Holy Angels Academy in Milwaukee and entered the congregation on Sept. 8, 1938. She received the name Eugenio upon her reception on March 19, 1939, professed her first vows on March 19, 1941, and lived 78 years as a BVM. Her sister Rose entered the congregation in 1941 and received the name Mary Remi. She died on Feb. 21, 2008.
Mary Ellen began her teaching career in the elementary grades. She was missioned at St. Mary in DeKalb, Ill.; St. Vincent in Chicago; Mount Carmel in Wichita, Kan.; and St. Patrick in Dubuque, Iowa, where she also served as superior and principal. However, she will be remembered best for her 25 years in the religious studies department at Clarke University, including 11 years as the department chair. In May 1984, she returned to Dubuque after a year of study in Cambridge, Mass., to discover that she had lost everything in her office and bedroom in the Clarke fire. Through exchange programs, Mary Ellen taught courses at Mundelein College in Chicago, as well as at Loras College, University of Dubuque, and Aquinas Institute of Theology, all in Dubuque. She also facilitated scripture study groups for adults.
As a teacher, Mary Ellen touched lives on three continents. In 1983, she traveled abroad to teach Scripture classes at a secondary school for girls in Matunda, Kenya, as a third world experience. From 1990 to 1992, she taught religion at the St. Hubert Seminary in Kumasi, Ghana, West Africa. “This [experience] has been a time of special grace for me, and I am most grateful for it,” she wrote. “The balance of prayer and community and ministry has brought deep peace. The experience of people with so many dire needs leads me to wonder that I have been so blessed and to want the liberating word of God for all.” In 1993, she embraced the opportunity to teach English as a second language in Hungary. “I worked with women religious whose energies had been engaged in keeping their religious life secret; now they were engaged in learning to live it openly.”
In August 1973, Mary Ellen, Carol Frances Jegen, BVM and Betty Pleas, BVM, along with many priests and other religious, answered the call of Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, to picket California growers. They were arrested and held in a detention center for two weeks, refusing to accept release until the arrested farm workers were also released.
Mary Ellen commented, “I used to think of the law and justice going together, hand-in-hand. Then I realized that for many people they don’t go together . . . I felt really, utterly helpless. I was not frightened, but I was absolutely incredulous . . . I was angry about the treatments given to hardworking farm workers; they didn’t deserve to be treated as criminals. It was an honor to be with them and special privilege to spend time with Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who came to California to join us.” Mary Ellen always remembered what Chavez said at a Mass on the night of their release. “We really are not free, just out of jail.”
The approval of the revised BVM Constitutions on Feb. 2, 1989, was a joyous moment for Mary Ellen. She served 13 years on the Constitutions Committee, including one year as the full-time chair, and traveled to Rome for the approbation of the revision. “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.”
A note from a BVM sister reads, “The committee deserves our gratitude and appreciation for their long years of work. I want to add my own personal note of appreciation for your contribution—your marvelous skill during the meetings and your courage in handling the situation. Your expertise, courage and spiritual depth added so much.”
In 1998, Mary Ellen moved to Mount Carmel, but did not slow down. She taught scripture classes at the Roberta Kuhn Center, privately tutored foreign students in English and, until recently, served as a lector at Mass. In 2005, she participated in the “Forum for Sisters,” an international dialogue among women religious held in Piliscaba, Hungary.
In the past two years, she helped two individuals with sacramental preparation. Via Skype, she instructed a father in Texas, enabling him to be baptized with his son at St. Raphael Cathedral in Dubuque, where he and his wife were married. Earlier this year, she prepared the grandson of a friend and former coworker to receive his first communion in Columbia in the presence of his extended family.
Mary Ellen may have been small in stature, but she had a brilliant mind, a great desire for knowledge, an adventurous spirit ready to face new challenges, and a listening heart—always sensitive to the hardships, hopes and desires of others. Her twinkling eyes and bright smile revealed a zest for life rooted in her deep trust in God. One of her favorite prayers was the Suscipe by St. Ignatius of Loyola. “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will . . . Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.” Mary Ellen was blessed with many gifts, shared them generously, reaped a bountiful harvest, and returned all to the Lord. Finally, she returned “the very breath that sang [God’s] praise.”* Mary Ellen, we love you and miss you, yet our hearts are joyful knowing that you rest in the loving arms of God. It is enough.
*From “These Alone Are Enough” by Dan Schutte.