Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Sister Mary Ellen Verdon, S.C. Oral History




Date edited:

Sister Mary Ellen Gleason, SC
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon, SC
January 12, 1988
Sister Noreen Neary, SC
October 23, 2020

Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: In the early 1960s, as a response to Pope John XXIII’s appeal
for missionaries to the Third World countries, you volunteered to serve in our first mission in
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon: That's right.
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: There were three other sisters: Sister Mary Frederick
[Holbrow], Sister Anne James [Connolly] and Sister Grace Lavina [Reilly], who comprised
the first group. Let's begin with you. How did you prepare yourself, educationally, to meet
the needs of the people you were called to serve?
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon:
Well, I speak for my own self, but this really does apply to all of us. We really didn't know
where Bolivia was. First we had to find a map and find where it was. Then it was a matter of
finding out about what Bolivia was. What it meant. And I went to the library. That was the
easiest way to get some idea of who was in Bolivia…what was in Bolivia. What was it all
The next piece was that I did not speak Spanish. And I had a background in French and
Latin, but I had no Spanish. However, I wasn't too sure of how to go about this and then I
find out that none of us spoke Spanish and therefore we were told that arrangements
were made for us to go to a language school in Lima, Peru.
So, what we did, we got some tapes. We had some books, we even played Scrabble and
this was Sister Mary Frederick, Lord have mercy on her, this was her great idea. We
would play Scrabble in Spanish. It was torture for most of us. But, in fact, we played
Scrabble every afternoon on the boat going down to Bolivia. And somewhere along the
line, I found an egg timer. And Sister Mary Frederick said we had to play for ten
minutes. So I used to turn the egg timer. But then we finally got to Peru only to find out
that the language school was only for men. We couldn't go. This was 1963. And when
we went on to Bolivia, we had…arrangements had been made for us to live with
Spanish-speaking sisters while the house we were going to live in, the convent, was being
fixed...being built. And when we got to Coroico, the sisters that we were to live with
were petrified of us, didn't know what to make of us. We were gringos and they were very
a pretty strict community. And it almost took a Papal Mandate that they eat with us, they
recreate with us, they do everything with us. And one of them became our teacher. The
Franciscans supplied the books and then we had class. And that went on for a couple of

months. And little by little, we learned the language and I carried a dictionary, myself, for
almost two years. It became a joke about me and my little dictionary. But it was the only way
to learn the language. You had to be willing to make mistakes and the people laughed, then
that was all right.
But I would say, after two years, I felt very fluent and it didn't matter. I was able to...I was
comfortable in English or in Spanish. But the preparation, to answer your beginning
question, really was nothing. It was...nobody knew what to do. But we survived. Does that
answer your question?
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: Almost. You had a background in nursing...and you had spent
several years at the Hospital of St. Raphael [in New Haven, Connecticut] before you went to
Bolivia. Now, was it possible for you to take time while you were at St. Raphael's to learn
special techniques that perhaps only a doctor would do so that you could better serve the
people in Bolivia?
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon:
You're very right. Sister Louise Anthony [Geronemo], Lord have mercy on her, was very,
very supportive of my going to Bolivia. Arrangements were made for me to work in the
emergency room. And I worked there for a couple of months. Dr. Mark Russell was the
senior resident and he was just so enamored with my going to Bolivia. He taught me so
many things. He taught me how to sew people. He taught me how to do in-depth
examinations. He taught me many, many things which I don't even want to talk about on
public taping, but it was three wonderful months. Wonderful months. And when I finished
there, before I went to Bolivia, he gave me a machete. It was about two and a half feet long
when he gave it to me. And when I left Bolivia, it was about six inches long. It got an awful
lot of use in those years.
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: Am I right in thinking that you even had some experience in
learning procedures in dentistry, like how to extract teeth? Or is that something you
taught yourself?
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon:
No, no, no…what happened was that when we went to Bolivia, there was a dentist from
[Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, New Jersey]. He volunteered to come down for two
weeks. He came in our first year there and he brought all his own equipment. And, at that
time, I was very young and I…and the world was mine and I could do everything, so he
spent a great deal of time and…he worked all day long. He taught me how to pull teeth and
in the evening, he'd come down and he'd have classes and he'd…which tooth got which
instrument and all this stuff and he left his complete set of instruments…taught me how to
give the anesthesia…taught me all these other things…and in the two weeks that he was
there, he pulled over 700 teeth. And in the time that I was there, I pulled a couple of
thousand teeth.


Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: What about the delivering of babies. Did you ever do that in
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon:
Yes, I did deliver babies, but not for long because Sister Malwina Anne [Sister Evelyn
Lebiedz] came and she's a midwife. And that's her specialty and she did wonderful
things with setting up classes and doing that kind of stuff.
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: What about the other three sisters? Do you know if they did
anything in particular to get ready to go to Bolivia other than maybe trying to do something
about learning Spanish?
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon:
Well, we all were in the same boat where Spanish was concerned. Sister Mary Frederick
may have had a couple of more words than the rest of us, but none of us spoke Spanish. I
would think Mary Frederick and Anne James most likely gathered catechetical things to use.
Sister Grace, I know, made some arrangements with Saint Joseph's [Hospital] to supply us
with stuff…because that's where she was missioned. But beyond that, no. Not that I know
of. It was getting our things ready. It was trying to learn about the country. And there really
wasn't that much time.
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: About how long after you were accepted to go to Bolivia did
you actually leave?
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon: I would say it could be no more than maybe four months.
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: So that was really a very short time...
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: Before we conclude our conversation today, is there anything
else you would like to say about your eleven years’ experience in Bolivia?
Sister Mary Ellen Verdon:
Well, as you well know, I can go on for hours and hours and hours, but in an attempt to keep
it to the theme of why we're here today, the educational opportunities of the Sisters to
prepare them for their work, I don't think it's fair to present the Bolivian experience relative
to education without introducing later changes. Because, as was said in the beginning, I went
there in 1963, when women couldn't even go to the language school. By 1965, two years
later, that was all changed. Maryknoll had a language school in Cochabamba [Bolivia]. There
was language school with Monsignor lllich in Cuernavaca [Mexico], and this was not just
language, this was society. This was teachings about the society, both spiritually, physically,
economically, anyway you want to talk about it. And these all happened starting about 1965
where men and women went to language school. But also other changes happened then.
From a sense of helping us be able to help people, was the Vatican Council. And granted, in

Latin America, we didn't have visions of communities like you have in this country, but there
were still some areas that Vatican II just broke down the walls completely. And this ability
to learn from each other, to share, to grow…one of the Franciscans had a catechetical group,
and he needed ideas of how to do this or that, we found ways to communicate with other
people that were doing this. Like, then we had diocesan meetings. One meeting three/four
days and maybe one day was a retreat day, but the other days…what are you doing about
this, how could we do it better? And if somebody was really good, they presented, they
talked, and they spoke. So, as time went by very rapidly, things changed very rapidly. I just
wanted to get that piece in.
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: Thank you very much.


Dublin Core


Sister Mary Ellen Verdon, S.C. Oral History


Verdon, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C.; Caranavi, Bolivia; Hospital of Saint Raphael, New Haven, CT; missioner; nurse; Saint Joseph Hospital, Paterson, NJ


Description of Sister's preparation to become a nurse/missioner in Bolivia


Verdon, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C.; Gleason, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C.


Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth


January 12, 1998


Neary, Sister Noreen, S.C. (Editor)


Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth






Oral History


Sister Mary Ellen Verdon, S.C. describes her preparation to become a nurse/missioner in Bolivia


January 12, 1998

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Gleason, Sister Mary Ellen


Verdon, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C.

Original Format



Verdon, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C.; Gleason, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C., “Sister Mary Ellen Verdon, S.C. Oral History,” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed May 24, 2024,


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