Sister Elizabeth Ann Altman, MM
Born: November 5, 1909
Entered: December 8, 1938
Died: August 14, 1999
“I tell you most solemnly, when you were young, you put on your own belt and walked where you liked: but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.. .“ After this He said, “Follow me.” These words spoken by Jesus to Saint Peter are taken from Saint John’s Gospel which was chosen for today’s liturgy. They speak very much of the life of our Sister Elizabeth Ann Altman. She followed God’s call her entire life and spent fifty-three years in Bolivia until became ill on July 1, 1999. Although she would have preferred to remain in Bolivia, she graciously accepted the fact that she would have to return to the Maryknoll Sisters Center. She arrived on August 3, 1999 accompanied by her longtime friends, Sisters Rose Christopher McKeegan and Nancy Connor. Through the next eleven days, she was continuously accompanied on her journey by her many friends who had shared life and mission with her. Early in the morning of August 14, 1999, Sister Elizabeth Ann died peacefully in the Residential Care Facility.
Gertrude Cecilia Altman was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania on November 5, 1909, one of three children of Margaret Bridge and Harold Altman. She had one brother, Paul and a sister, Marie, who was a Benedictine Sister. Gertrude attended Saint Benedict’s Parochial elementary school and high school at Saint Joseph’s Academy, graduating in 1927. She then studied for a year at the Office Training School and upon graduation, worked in the Prudential Insurance Company as an assistant cashier for three years. She began studies at the Mercy Hospital Nursing School in 1932, graduating with a Registered Nurses’ Degree in 1935 and spent the next three years in general and private nursing duties.
Gertrude became interested in the missions through her school’s Mission Club and The Field Afar magazine. She entered Maryknoll on December 8, 1938 from Blessed Sacrament Parish in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. At Reception, Gertrude received the religious name of Sister Elizabeth Ann. Although she retained this name throughout her life, in Bolivia she was affectionately called “Liz.” She made her First Profession of Vows on June 30, 1941 and soon after was assigned to Hawaii. On June 30,1944, she made her Final Profession. During her five years in Hawaii, she taught seventh grade for four years and then spent a year doing social work.
In 1946, Liz was assigned to Bolivia and a month after her arrival, began work in the Maryknoll Hospital in Riberalta in the Amazon jungle. For the next seventeen years, Liz served as a nurse, either in the Maryknoll Hospital in Riberalta or the parish clinic in Guayaramerin, another town along the Beni River.
In 1963, she was assigned from the humid jungles of the Beni to the Andean heights of Cochabamba, to work in the out patient clinic in the parish of Santa Ana. It was there she spent the next thirty-six years serving the poor, especially women and children. In fact, she was on her way to the clinic to begin her day’s work when she fell ill.
Liz took very much to heart the preferential option for the poor. She not only worked in the clinic but also visited the people in their homes and took the time to sit and listen to stories about their lives and their hardships. Many of the medicines for the clinic were purchased in Cochabamba. On one occasion when medicines were scarce, Liz, along with her co-worker and good friend, Sister Laura Hatton, visited thirty-two pharmacies trying to locate needed supplies. The poor from all over Cochabamba came to the clinic because they knew they would be well taken care of and treated with respect and dignity. They would line up early in the day, and on any afternoon some one-hundred or more people would pass through the doors to receive medical services and loving care. Liz had a great tenderness toward her patients and they called her “Madre” Elizabeth.
While Liz spent most of her time working in the clinic, she always found time to take care of the medical needs not only of her Maryknoll Sisters but all in the Maryknoll family. There probably is not a Maryknoller who served in Bolivia who has not been the recipient of Liz’s generous and competent care. Besides being well known for her caring work in the clinic and taking care of the Maryknollers, Liz also managed to find time to tend to the health needs of the students at the Language School as well as other religious and priests in Cochabamba.
Liz’s influence reached far and wide. In answer to a telephone call from a man in Columbi, who had seen her picture in a Maryknoll magazine, Liz came in contact with a widow, whose three sons had predeceased her. She made weekly visits to the woman’s home to take groceries to her and to check on her health. This went on for many years until the woman died. In the process, Liz made the acquaintance of the woman’s eight-year-old great grandnephew and later helped to finance his studies at the seminary. A year ago, Liz had the joy of assisting at his priestly ordination.
Liz was also a good cook and was famous for her Christmas fruit cakes and homemade ice cream. For many years, ice cream was not made in Bolivia. It was Liz who made it for the traditional ice cream sodas served on the October 15 feast day celebration of Saint Teresa. This quote from Saint Teresa sums up Liz’s outlook on life: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing. God alone is unchanging.”
When asked about retirement in an interview in 1977, Liz, who was then sixty-seven, stated that she saw herself taking on a semi-retirement life style in the Bolivia Region sometime after her 1980 Renewal. We all know that Liz was never able to live up to the idea of semi-retirement since she was too busy doing what she loved best– serving the poor in their health needs.
Before entering Maryknoll, Liz was asked to provide some character references. One of the references stated that Liz “manifested inflexible devotion to principle, resourcefulness in trying circumstances, quickness of perception in understanding and promptness in executing what emergencies required both in her profession and out of it.” Her Noviciate Superiors saw her as a person with “an even disposition, generous, capable, sympathetic, kind, possessing a good sense of humor and a good store of practical common sense.” I believe that each one of us who knew Liz can easily attest to the fact that the qualities mentioned in 1938 and 1939 do characterize Liz and they served her well in her lifetime as a Maryknoll Sister. Her sense of humor, her practical sense and her “famous sayings” will always be remembered.
In 1939, her Postulant Mistress, Sister Theodore, commented: “Gertrude is reliable, takes responsibility well, is conscientious, thoughtful and generous. She has a fine sense of humor and when she talks she has something to say.” Liz always did have something to say and she said it well. I think one of the things that she said the best of all with her life was her commitment to mission, to the poor and to Maryknoll. She did not have a lot of phrases to express this, but said it with her fifty-three years of dedication to the people of Bolivia and her sixty-one years as a member of our Maryknoll Community.
At the time of her Golden Jubilee Celebration, Liz was asked what she treasured most about her life in Maryknoll. She answered: “Perhaps what I treasure most is the opportunity to have a life of prayer. My life in Maryknoll has been a rich and full one. I’ve had my ‘Good Fridays’ but I have also had my ‘Easter Morns’.” Many of us were privileged to share Liz’s last “Good Friday” these past weeks and so today, Liz, we, your Sisters, your family and your friends celebrate your final “Easter Morn” as we gather to celebrate your entrance into eternity where you will rejoice with the God whom you loved and served throughout your life. We will miss you.
We extend our sympathy to Sister Elizabeth Ann’s family and thank you for sharing her with us and the peoples of Bolivia all these years. We are grateful for your presence with us today. We also wish to welcome our brother Maryknoller, Father Thomas McDonnell, M.M., who will preside at this Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial.