CHARLESTON — The Ursulines are a worldwide community of Catholic sisters who originated in Brescia, Italy, in 1535. They have been a part of religious life in South Carolina from the very beginning, when the Diocese of Charleston was first created under Bishop John England.
In the beginning
Ursuline Sister Julienne Guy said a group of nuns from Blackrock, Ireland, was escorted to Charleston by Bishop England to run a convent and boarding school. When Bishop Ignatius A. Reynolds took over, the nuns dispersed, with some returning to Ireland and others moving to Cincinnati.
One of those traveling to Cincinnati was Sister Baptista Lynch. When her brother, Patrick N. Lynch, became the third bishop of Charleston, the Ursulines were invited to return. They did, but this time they set up their convent and school in Columbia.
The sisters opened Ursuline High School for young women in 1858, just three years before the start of the Civil War. In 1865, when Gen. William T. Sherman ordered the burning of Columbia, the Ursulines’ building was not spared. Sister Julienne said the nuns and students fled to a nearby cemetery.
Mother Superior Baptista had taught Sherman’s daughter in Ohio, and the next day, the general found the group, apologized, and offered the sisters any building still standing. She chose the Hampton-Preston Mansion to save it from destruction as Union soldiers continued to torch other parts of the city.
The sisters then moved to Valle Crucis, or Vale of the Cross, which was owned by Bishop Lynch. The Ursuline school was operated there for 22 years, until it was destroyed by an earthquake, Sister Julienne said.
The congregation returned to Columbia, and over the years, the school evolved from the Ursuline school to Catholic High School for boys and girls, to the present Cardinal Newman School.
Sister Julienne, who is the director of senior life ministry at St. Joseph Church, is an alumna of Ursuline High School.
“Catholic education was important in my life,” she said. “What the nuns taught me … they turned my life around. I admired them.”
After Sister Julienne made her own vows, she returned to Columbia in 1966 and taught at St. Peter. While she was there, a snowstorm collapsed the roof. She said if the secretary had been at her desk, she would have been crushed.
Sister Julienne has also served as principal at St. Joseph and Cardinal Newman schools. Currently, she works with two other Ursulines: Sister Andrea Callahan, who works with the homebound, and Sister Maria Lovett, who teaches at St. Joseph.
Sister Andrea was invited to the first White House conference on aging and is credited with starting the senior ministry at St. Joseph, which now offers music, dancing, exercise class, games and more, Sister Julienne said.
“They come to life with music,” she said. “They enjoy it so much.”
The sister said she would like to see the Ursulines continue their service in Columbia and around the world.
The congregation celebrated its 150th anniversary in Columbia in 2008, and count 475 years since it was first established by Angela Merici in Italy. The Ursulines have been involved with education from the beginning, when Merici gathered a group of unmarried women to teach young girls.
Angela’s Company of Saint Ursula was not a religious order in her lifetime because it was unheard of for a nun to be uncloistered. The Ursulines were approved as a congregation in 1565 and Angela was canonized in 1807. In 1727, a group of French Ursulines were invited to New Orleans to educate youth and care for the sick in a fast-growing settlement known as New France, according to their Web site.
Today there are Ursuline Sisters proclaiming the Good News of Jesus on six continents, with 2,400 religious in 27 provinces throughout the world.
They currently have sisters living and ministering in Mexico, Brazil, Cameroon, Israel, the international center in Rome, Asia, Africa, Europe, all of the Americas, Australia, Canada and the United States.
Sister Julienne said they serve in cities across the country, wherever there is a need.