CHARLESTON—The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy are not shying away from the truth. They know the statistics, and they know that religious orders across the globe are dwindling. But don’t talk to them about a possible ending of the diocesan congregation, because they are having none of it.
Filled with a steely resolve, the sisters are moving forward with a positive attitude about their current mission and what the future may hold.
“It’s about the life of the community,” said Sister Bridget Sullivan, general superior. “It’s about living in the joy and peace that is ours.”
Yes, the membership is growing older and they are far smaller than in their heyday, but they are still here and still serving, with each of the active members involved in community ministry.
When people ask Sister Bridget what she thinks will happen in the future, she makes a face halfway between humor and exasperation, and says if she knew that she’d be God.
She noted that the order can make all the plans they want, but if the Lord doesn’t want the same thing, it won’t happen.
“We patiently wait for God’s plan to be revealed,” she said.
The sisters can’t worry about the future. They were called to service by God and that’s what they are going to do. They are active in the schools, parishes and various outreach efforts.
“This little bunch of 19 are so visible in the diocese. It really is just part of our DNA … we’re not going to stop, we’re just going to keep giving,” Sister Bridget said.
Sister Mary Joseph Ritter noted that the congregation has been part of the diocese since the beginning and is the active legacy of Bishop John England.
For more than 180 years, the religious women have been a life-changing force across the state, and Sister Mary Joseph said they initiated many of the diocesan ministries, including schools, hospitals and outreach.
One of those is Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Center on Johns Island, where Sister Mary Joseph is director. Sisters Carol Wentworth, Rosemary Boyd and Marie Amelia Ferillo also serve there.
“Part of our call is to be in service to others,” Sister Mary Joseph said, noting that all of the sisters who are able help the community in some way.
When the sisters can’t carry on publicly, they engage in prayer ministry or reach out in some other capacity. Take Sister Brendan Lacey. At 103, age has taken its toll physically, but her mind is still sharp and constantly in motion. She engages in a written ministry through cards and letters, and of course, prayer.
“The rosary beads are never out of the woman’s hands,” Sister Bridget said, smiling fondly.
Sister Carol is at the other end of the spectrum. The youngest member, she said the loss of so many sisters over the years makes her sad, and she wonders what will happen. But she doesn’t dwell.
“You strive to continue to serve the way you were called,” she said. “We have to remember why we’re here, which is to serve God.”
Lay people have become a tremendous part of the mission, she added. Within the OLM Associates program, the congregation works to instill their charism so their mission can be carried forward.
“A lot of the future religious life is collaboration, not only with religious sisters, but brothers and other religious men and women,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “I don’t see it as diminishment, but the ability to share ministry more openly than ever before.”
Sister Bridget referred to a quote by St. Vincent de Paul, “as long as the Company of Charity was part of God’s design, it would continue to exist and when it had completed its part in the mission … the company would no longer be needed and go out of existence.”
Only God knows if their mission is complete.
In the meantime, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy still have a lot of work to do, Sister Carol said. It’s what makes them happy, and they’ll move on to the next thing when the time comes.
“Our sisters have made such a fine impact out there, our legacy will continue,” Sister Carol said.