(Sister is referred to by both her baptismal name ‘Leona’ and her religious name ‘Charlotte’ in this story.)
Sister Charlotte Gambol feels close to Mother Catherine Spalding because they share a very similar childhood. Like Mother Catherine, Charlotte lost her mother at a young age and her father was not able to care for her. Charlotte was only five years old. Shortly before her mother’s passing, the restaurant Charlotte’s father owned was robbed and he suffered a blow to the head which triggered early Parkinson’s disease. He was in his early thirties.
Baptized Leona Gambol, Sister was an only child. She was born in January 1930 in Cleveland, Ohio to Andrew Gambol and Mary Vavrek. Due to her mother’s death and her father’s poor health, Leona was raised by her extended family and lived with her grandparents, aunts and uncles at different times. Leona had many cousins on her father’s side of the family with whom to grow up. On her mother’s side, she had only one cousin, Charlotte, and the two were close friends. Even today they remain close and Cousin Charlotte is occasionally able to come from Cleveland, Ohio to visit Sister.
In 1945, Leona first came into contact with the Vincentian Sisters of Charity when she enrolled in their boarding school, Vincentian Sisters High School, as a sophomore. Not particularly fond of school, Leona focused on completing her education and moving on to new things. Early in her senior year of high school, in 1946, Leona’s father passed away at the age of forty-two. She remembers that he was a very good man. At this time, her Uncle Frank became her legal guardian. Having no family obligations, she made the decision to enter the Vincentian community soon after graduating. She joined the community September 14, 1947 and entered the novitiate on August fifteenth of the following year. She took the name Charlotte in honor of her cousin.
While in the novitiate, Charlotte’s guardian, Uncle Frank, kept in touch and was good to her, sending her packages with candy and other treats. As a novice, Charlotte attended classes at Duquesne University on Saturdays where she took courses in Ethics, Philosophy, and Theology. She was also enrolled for summer art classes at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. At the time, Duquesne didn’t have a fine arts program and Sisters were discouraged from attending secular colleges. She went on to earn both undergraduate credits and a Master of Fine Arts degree at Catholic University. Sister Jerome Nosal, novice mistress, assigned a lot of hard work scrubbing floors, doing laundry, painting, and other useful tasks. Charlotte recalls that her artistic ability occasionally got her out of some of the work because she was asked to do some other task requiring at least a little artistic ability.
After spending two years in the novitiate, Charlotte made her first vows on August 13, 1950, and spent the first year of her vowed life as a nurse’s aide at Villa de Marillac Nursing Home. Nursing wasn’t her forte so her teaching career was initiated the following year. Over the next five years, Sister taught grades second through sixth in three different schools in Pennsylvania. Her first teaching mission was a combined fifth and sixth-grade class at St. Mary School in Brownsville, PA.
Later, while teaching at St. Ursula School in Allison Park, PA, Sister had a unique challenge. At that time, the playground hadn’t been built at the school so the children could not go outside to play. Despite the children not being able to go outside after lunch, Sister didn’t have any real problems with the class but recalled that there were three lively boys, all named Billy, who she called her “billy goats”. After lunch, before Sister Charlotte returned to her classroom, the three would run about the classroom and jump over desks. One day, Sister wasn’t feeling well and decided to skip lunch. When her billy goats returned to the classroom after their lunch to find Sister resting her head on her desk, the ringleader of the three took it upon himself to take control of the classroom. He greeted every one of his classmates at the door with the instructions, “Shh! Sister’s sleeping.” Charlotte, of course, was not sleeping but Billy couldn’t tell because her veil hid her face. Amused and touched by his caring, she let him continue to manage the classroom for a few more minutes. When she lifted her head, he had every student working quietly at their desk. She saw a different side of him that day; he was her troublemaker with heart.
Sister Charlotte teaching her high school art class.
From elementary grades she went on to teach high school English, Art, and Religion. She did this before receiving her Bachelors in Education from Duquesne University and her MFA from C.U. Her time as a high school teacher spanned forty-three years and three different high schools. Charlotte enjoyed the whole ministry of teaching, both the ups and downs, and having good school principals with which to work made the missions go smoothly.
At age seventy, she retired from teaching but didn’t abandon the classroom. She went back to school; this time she was the student. Entering a field that she knew nothing about but that she wisely perceived would be beneficial to the community, Charlotte studied cosmetology. After eight months she graduated and became a licensed cosmetologist. She remembers that it was quite an experience, mingling with young adults whose ideas were so different from her own. They were chiefly concerned with their social life and who was dating whom. Sister Charlotte listened to all their talk on these matters and when a feast day came along, she got her turn to share topics which interested her. Every feast day she would give the young people in her class a lecture on the occasion and why the feast day was celebrated.
Working through such a foreign field of study with individuals whose interests were so different was worth it. Charlotte opened a small beauty parlor on the basement floor of Marian Hall. The Sisters were very grateful for what she did for them, especially the older Sisters who had difficulty getting around. She was always sure to remind them that she just knew the basics of hair styling and they should not expect miracles.
In addition to hair styling, Charlotte spent time shopping at the area thrift stores. It was like a treasure hunt and sometimes like a mission, especially when Sisters requested she look for a particular object or piece of clothing. She was often able to find exactly what someone was looking for.
After thirteen years, Charlotte retired from cosmetology. Today she continues to make Christmas carolers that she first crafted while teaching an art class in 1975 at Quigley High School. Some students wanted to make a gift to take home for Christmas so Charlotte designed the carolers out of bottles and foam balls which are then painted and decorated to look like Christmas carolers. She also decorates some as Pittsburgh Steelers fans cheering on their team. She gets many orders for her carolers every year and stays busy working on them. Charlotte enjoys working with many different mediums ranging from paint to silver to crocheting. Sister also crochets mats for the homeless out of recycled plastic grocery bags and cares for a beautiful young maple tree that she has raised from a sapling.
Sister Charlotte and others celebrate their Golden Jubilees on June 22, 1997. L-R: Sister Michael Baksi, Sister Theresa Podlucky, Sister Charlotte Gambol, Sister Jude Milko, Sister Mary Kenneth Hrbal, Sister Rita Gesue, and Sister Mary Vincent O’Neill
While Sister Charlotte enjoyed the habit while the Sisters had it, she wasn’t opposed to the gradual change from habit to a shorter, modified habit; to black suits; and finally to secular clothes. In the end she believes, “it’s not what you look like, it’s what you are”. Charlotte feels blessed in many ways and owes Almighty God a heart-felt thank you for having chosen her out of so many others who she believes are holier and more qualified. Despite the changes in the lives of women religious over the years and the decrease in vocations, Sister has hope for the future. She feels that the work done by women religious in the past is gradually being done on a broader basis by lay people. No matter what, “God does not abandon us.”
Interviewed by Kelly McDaniels, Archivist