A story of charity, a mission of mercy
SOUTH CAROLINA—In an effort to “wake up the world” to the faith of men and women religious, Pope Francis called for a celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life to begin Nov. 30 and close Feb. 2, 2016.
To honor the women religious who have dedicated their lives to the service of God, The Catholic Miscellany will feature articles about the orders serving in South Carolina, starting with our own Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, who will celebrate 185 years on Dec. 8.
Founded by Bishop John England, premier bishop of Charleston, the congregation’s history runs parallel to that of the diocese. The community established the first Catholic orphanage and schools; they attended soldiers from the Civil War and opened the first Catholic hospital and nursing school; and they served the poor in a multitude of ways.
Now, almost two centuries later, their work has changed, but the call to live their charism of charity remains. As Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, general superior, said: “We are the last living link with John England and we continue to minister in many ways.”
Taking a moment out of busy schedules, Sister Mary Joseph gathered with Sisters Anne Francis Campbell, Carol Wentworth and Ann Billard to talk about their community and its long history of service.
A few of the ministries in which the sisters are involved at present include adult education, faith formation, prevention of human trafficking, community outreach, prison ministry, pro-life issues, phone outreach and prayer, and senior ministry, which includes taking Communion and visiting the sick and homebound.
They provide grants to various nonprofits in South Carolina and a scholarship to Bishop England High School. They sponsor Our Lady of Mercy Outreach and Neighborhood House, both of which they founded to serve the poor.
Sister Ann is engaged in the ministry of “Transformative Aging”. She travels all over the world guiding aging members of religious congregations.
“I help them recognize there is a call, a mission and purpose throughout the aging process of their lives,” she explained.
“We’ve been prophetic witnesses from the beginning,” said Sister Ann, noting that the sisters were at the forefront of education, health care and outreach since the inception of the diocese.
“Now we see a hunger for a spiritual way of being and believe our greatest work is in front of us, as long as we trust and are faithful and have hope.”
Sister Anne Francis, using a favorite quote, said “The past is God’s; the future is God’s; the present is ours and God’s together.”
The sisters plan to actively live that present, carrying out God’s will to help change the world.
One of the first missions of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy was to provide educational opportunities to young girls from poor homes and to free children of color.
Beginning with Our Lady of Mercy Academy in 1830, the sisters were key figures in the establishment of several schools in the state, including Charleston, Columbia, Sumter and Aiken. In all, they served in 26 educational institutions in South Carolina and New Jersey.
The sisters were an active presence in local schools until 2006, when they fine-tuned their focus to concentrate on parish and adult education.
1830 Sisters open Our Lady of Mercy Academy for girls on Friend Street in Charleston.
1835 Operate the first school for free children of color, which closed then reopened from 1841-48.
1899 Begin a long career serving parochial schools across the diocese, including the establishment of Bishop England High School in 1915.
The sisters are still active in their ministry of education. Through Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach on Johns Island, they provide after-school tutoring, summer education programs, GED and ESL instruction. Neighborhood House also offers courses including computer classes.
Care of the sick and infirm was another of the original purposes of the community. In the early days, they waded through muddy streets to care for those who were ill, even during times of plague.
Their dedication to wounded and dying soldiers during the Civil War, and even after it ended, was recognized by the U.S. Congress thanks to many letters from grateful soldiers. In gratitude, the sisters received a grant to rebuild their orphanage damaged by bombing.
When health care moved from home to hospital, the sisters were at the forefront of the movement, establishing hospitals and nursing homes around the diocese.
1830 Sisters attend the sick in homes and temporary relief hospitals.
1861 Serve wounded soldiers in military hospitals throughout the Civil War.
1882 Open St. Francis Xavier Hospital in Charleston.
1900 Mother Teresa Barry dies on May 18. Her successor, Mother Loretto Quinlan, opens the first school of nursing in Charleston.
In 1989, the sisters transferred sponsorship of the hospitals to Bon Secours Health Care System. They have returned to their roots, and now visit the sick at home and in hospitals. The sisters also provide numerous medical services to those in need through Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Center, established in 1989.
As yellow fever devastated the population and left many children orphans, one of the order’s first acts was to establish an orphanage. They were involved with the care of orphans until 1991.
The sisters also founded Neighborhood House in 1915 and developed programs to serve the needs of an impoverished community.
In 1929, they reached out to mission territories by creating day schools and camps in areas around the diocese.
1830 Sisters open the first orphanage in their home to a group of orphaned girls.
1867 Operate a boys’ orphanage. The girls’ and boys’ facilities merge in 1901 and run until 1965.
1915 Open Neighborhood House, which originally served immigrant populations, and then the African-American community.
1929 Begin ministry of mission schools and camps.
The sisters maintain many ministries to the community, including prayer, plus writing and visiting prisoners. In 1994, the community joined the Sisters of Charity Federation, which includes congregations in the U.S. and Canada. Through the federation, they advocate for peace and justice and have an Non-Governmental Organization representative at the United Nations who is involved with issues such as human trafficking.