Court’s interpreter served Guatemalan mission

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Sister Mary Judith Fleig, a Spanish language interpreter for the Dubois County Courts, poses for a portrait outside the Dubois County Courthouse in Jasper on Thursday. Sr. Mary Judith said her favorite part of her job is helping people.


The nun serving as the Spanish language interpreter for the Dubois County Courts will tell you her life began in Guatemala.

Sister Mary Judith Fleig, 77, was actually born and raised in Ferdinand. She even had a grandfather — Valentine Fleig — who was the first owner of the town’s landmark Fleig’s Cafe.

“I walked up the hill when I was a little over 18 and joined the monastery,” she says, referring to the Sisters of St. Benedict, Monastery Immaculate Conception.

Sr. Mary Judith was always drawn to missionary work, so much so that, before joining the monastery, she had given thought to becoming a medical missionary right out of high school.

She could not summon the courage then but, after final profession of vows in 1968 at the age of 25, Sr. Mary Judith wanted to volunteer to serve the Sisters of St. Benedict’s mission in Guatemala. Her superior at the time thought differently, noting her father, Sylvester Fleig, had passed away, which meant her mother, Mildred Fleig, would be needing her close by.

With mission work on hold, the young sister earned a degree in education at St. Benedict College in Ferdinand, and studied business for two years at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas. Then, she taught for six years at Evansville Mater Dei High School.

Years later, when her superior inquired if she still had an interest in mission work, Sr. Mary Judith could not prepare fast enough.

She began studying Spanish at the University of Evansville and Indiana University. In September 1971, she went to study Spanish in Mexico City and then, in December of that year, joined the Benedictine community in Coban, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

Sr. Mary Judith began her Guatemalan mission work in the mountain villages of the Q’eqchi’, a Mayan people of Guatemala and Belize. The sisters delivered evangelism, started women’s programs and launched a native community of sisters.

“In order to support ourselves and continue to serve the people, we started a printing press,” Sr. Mary Judith says. “In Benedictine history, it was common to have printing presses. There are 22 Indian languages in Guatemala. There was very little printed in the Indian languages.”

People who had never learned to read could suddenly begin to thanks to song books coming off the press.

Sr. Mary Judith, who began to feel comfortable speaking Spanish fluently after about two years, went on to serve 20 years as her mission’s superior.

Guatemala became her favorite place.

“It’s my second home,” she says quietly and reverently. “It is a beautiful country. They call the place where I lived Land of Eternal Spring. They have many volcanoes. Beautiful lakes. The mountains are beautiful.”

In 1998, Sr. Mary Judith knew it was time to come back. She worked in her monastery’s business office and as a nurse’s aide in its Ferdinand infirmary.

It was a former high school classmate, Jasper attorney Joe Verkamp, who asked if she would consider serving as an interpreter for the courts.

Sr. Mary Judith was already doing work for the Diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry but, at the outset, some of the people she tried to help in the courtroom worried she would be on the court’s side.

“I tried to tell them I am just a translator,” she says. “No more. Little by little, the confidence built up.

“Whenever there is a Spanish-speaking person who doesn’t feel comfortable with English, they call me and I translate whatever the judge says and whatever the prosecutor says to the defendant.”

Her translating work for the courts finds her traveling to the probation department, the security center, community corrections center and attorneys’ offices. She also translates for therapists and doctors at LifeSpring Health Services, the former Southern Hills.

She has been at it for 19 years.

“It’s a service,” she says. “And we’re meant to be servants. I never find it drudgery. I never find it boring.

“It’s very rewarding. I’m a monastic, which means I live the monastic life that includes prayer, community living and hospitality. Hospitality is very important to me. I think that is transferred to my work in the courts — to be hospitable and kind to whomever I meet.”

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