Leavenworth couple recalls Amazon ministry

Ed and Gertrude Campbell traded their conventional lives in Kansas to answer the call by Pope John XXIII in 1961 for missionaries to go to Latin America. A month after they were married, they found themselves running a food program in the Amazon.  Photo by Joe Bollig.
Ed and Gertrude Campbell traded their conventional lives in Kansas to answer the call by Pope John XXIII in 1961 for missionaries to go to Latin America. A month after they were married, they found themselves running a food program in the Amazon. Photo by Joe Bollig.

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

LEAVENWORTH — Ed and Gertrude Campbell didn’t have much of a honeymoon when they got married on May 27, 1961.
First they spent a short weekend in Missouri, and then hurried home to get rid of nearly everything they owned.

The next month, they were feeding the poor along the Amazon River in Brazil.

Ed and Gertrude — everybody calls her Gert — were both civilian employees at Fort Leavenworth when they met. She was an auditor of non-appropriated funds and he worked in personnel.

“He had a friend who came over to survey my job, and he said to me, ‘I know a guy you ought to know,’” said Gert. “Then he went back to his office and told Ed, ‘I know a girl you ought to know.’”

And he was right. Ed was 41 and Gert was 39; they began to date. Not only were they very compatible, they also shared an interest in a new program called Papal Volunteers for Latin America.

The Papal Volunteers was a response by U.S. Catholic dioceses and religious orders to the call by Pope John XXIII for the materially wealthy church in North America to aid the people of Latin America.

In a lot of ways, the Papal Volunteers effort was like the Peace Corps, which emerged at the same time as an initiative of President John F. Kennedy. It was a bold initiative that required a bold and generous response. Ed and Gert, both devout cradle Catholics, felt stirred to answer that call even before they married.

“We were both kind of curious what it was about,” said Gert. “When they had a meeting to inform people about the program, we went. So when the time came to decide to become a Papal Volunteer or get out of the program, we both decided to become Papal Volunteers.”

They were assigned to Brazil, where the language is Brazilian Portuguese. Neither one of them knew the language, but Ed had studied four years of Latin at Immaculata High School while growing up in Leavenworth.

“When he got there, he could pick up the newspaper and read it,” said Gert. “They said he could read it as well and distinctly as the natives.”
They were based in the city of Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River. Originally, they were supposed to help at a health clinic, but ended up working at a warehouse that distributed food for the U.S. government’s Food for Peace program.

Gert did the bookkeeping and Ed worked in the warehouse. The infrastructure for distribution was the Redemptorist Fathers’ missions along the Amazon River. The region was hot, buggy and impoverished. It rained every day.

“There were villages all along the Amazon, and the Redemptorists got to all of them,” said Ed.

The two Americans were quite a novelty, and the Brazilians were amused by the Campbells’ attempts to speak their language. But the food they provided was very welcome.

“Powdered milk and cooking oil — they clamored for it,” said Gert. “They didn’t have anything like that.”

“There also weren’t priests in some of the villages,” she continued. “When people got married, they made the vows and lived together. When the priest came, he’d bless their marriage.”

The most memorable moment of their years as volunteers for Gert occurred when Ed was assigned to go to a meeting of Brazilian bishops way to the south in Rio de Janeiro, while she went up the Amazon with seven other Food for Peace workers.

Before they left, one of the Sisters gave her a big bag of oranges, which puzzled Gert. The journey took several days and eventually they ran out of water. That’s when the oranges came in handy.

The scariest thing about the trip was the food. Let’s just say the sanitation led Gert to think twice about what she ate.

“We’d stop along these little villages . . . and the people from the little village would all run down to see the boat,” said Gert. “That was the first little bit of anything different that they’d get to see.”

The Campbells eventually went up river together — by airplane — to Manaus, a substantial city in the center of the Amazon.

Two years into their three-year assignment, Ed underwent a mandatory medical examination and the doctors found he had cancer in his right kidney. He and Gert were sent home so Ed could have surgery.

After a period of recuperation, at the end of which Ed received a clean bill of health, the couple was reassigned to Barquisimeto in northwest Venezuela.

Having finished their final year, Ed and Gert returned to Kansas in 1965, returned to civilian jobs at Fort Leavenworth and settled down.

Ed retired in 1977, and Gert retired in 1980. They volunteered at St. John Hospital and the Catholic-sponsored Leavenworth Assistance Center. Ed, who was always a pretty good golfer, finally quit the game when a neck injury made it too painful to swing the clubs.

Now, they reside quietly in Twin Oaks Retirement Community. They remain members of Sacred Heart-St. Casimir Parish.

Ed was inducted into the Immaculata High School Hall of Fame in 2011. Also that year, his 75-year membership was recognized as the longest-tenured member of Knights of Columbus Council 900, which he joined at age 18.

Their greatest comfort in their retirement years, besides the company of each other, is their Catholic faith. Although they can no longer drive to church for Mass, the Knights of Columbus faithfully provide transportation.

“I just can’t image what it would be like not to be Catholic,” said Gert. “It’s the most important thing in our lives.”

“I have confidence that it is the true religion,” agreed Ed. “It’s more important than golf.”

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