The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are a small order of religious that have made a big impact in the Diocese of Charleston.
They have served in South Carolina for almost 70 years, arriving first in the mission territory of Sumter, where they opened a school, and expanded across the state to provide social outreach and religious education in Kingstree and Florence.
Over the decades, they have served in many locales and dozens of ministries, including outreach to prisoners and immigrants. Today, several of the sisters still work in schools and parishes across the diocese, including two who were born and raised here.
Sister Roberta Fulton, principal of St. Martin de Porres in Columbia, is from Kingstree; and Sister Colie Stokes, director of adult formation at Blessed Sacrament, grew up on a farm near Timmonsville. There is also Sister Mary Eileen Quinn, who teaches math at Cardinal Newman High School; Sister Kathleen Kane, pastoral associate at St. Francis by the Sea on Hilton Head Island; and Sister Sandra Makowski, diocesan chancellor.
They are a group of well-educated, dedicated women who live simply, always following the charism to give of themselves to help others. Some of them are at an age where the average person starts thinking about retirement, but religious sisters aren’t your average person.
“I’m only 70,” said Sister Colie. “I hope I can minister in South Carolina for quite a few more years yet.”
When she does retire, Sister Colie knows she has a home at St. Mary Center on the west side of Buffalo, New York. Built in 1925, it serves as a residence for active, semi-retired and retired sisters, and is the administrative center at the heart of the Eastern Province.
“It’s nice to know I have somewhere to go if I get sick or need to recuperate from something,” Sister Colie said. “It’s like going to Mama’s place. It’s where everybody goes without needing an invite.”
Of course, there comes a time when even religious have to at least partially retire.
Sister Kathleen Dougherty, who said she’s a Southern girl at heart, spent about 20 years in the Palmetto state, serving in Sumter and Charleston. One of her first duties was teaching in a program for mentally and physically handicapped children sponsored by St. Jude, which evolved into the Sumter Developmental Learning Center.
Even after she “supposedly retired”, Sister Kathleen continued to provide private tutoring and work with the community around St. Mary Center. She described the area as rich with immigrants representing many countries, including Africa.
“They’re rich in faith, but need help with ESL (English as a Second Language),” she said, explaining that many of the retired or semi-retired sisters living at St. Mary work in this program.
It was a desire to remain in that area and help the poor that prompted the Sisters of St. Mary to take a hard look at their home. Sister Colie described it as inadequate, noting that there weren’t enough rooms for all the sisters who need care.
Sister Marian Baumler said for those with serious health needs, “each bedroom had its own lavatory, but they were small and inaccessible — sisters with walkers couldn’t get the walker into the bathroom and it was even difficult for an aide to accompany a sister if she needed assistance.”
Other sisters faced long walks to communal bathrooms, some sections didn’t have air, and the heat was iffy.
“Sometimes the heat just didn’t work; and today it is minus 2 degrees in Buffalo,” Sister Kathleen said.
The order took on a major renovation and construction project that has been almost two years in the making and cost $5.3 million. Sister Marian said they have used money from their retirement fund to pay a large portion of the cost, and is concerned what that means for the future.
“It’s what we live off of. And more and more we’re living off of it on a daily basis, because we have less sisters working,” she said.
There are 75 sisters in the province, and about 25 of them will move into the new center in early March.
Sister Kathleen said she is looking forward to being a community again. And for the sisters still working in South Carolina, they know they have a loving place to go when they retire. One day.
To help, visit www.ssmn.us/newbuildingproject.html.