COLUMBIA—Sister Roberta Fulton was not raised Catholic, but was drawn to the faith as a child through a group of sisters who worked in her hometown of Kingstree in Williamsburg County.
Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from New York served Kingstree’s African- American population, which back then lived under the constant cloud of segregation. Sister Roberta recalled that over the years, she spent more and more time with the sisters, first accompanying them on youth trips to places like Brookgreen Gardens and eventually helping with religious education classes and other programs.
In her senior year of high school, after she converted to Catholicism, she decided to become one of them.
“I had seen the kinds of things the sisters did, how they helped those who were struggling,” she said. “The work they did and the center they ran in Kingstree meant everything to me as a child, and I knew I wanted to carry on with their work.”
Shortly after graduation in 1966, she traveled to the order’s motherhouse in Buffalo and took her first vows.
Now, 50 years later, Sister Roberta is celebrating her golden jubilee, looking back on her life with the order and carrying on their service to the poor and education of children.
Her three siblings, friends, fellow sisters, many former students and parishioners from St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia joined her for a jubilee celebration at the church on June 18, featuring a Mass celebrated by Father Michael Okere, the pastor. A second celebration will be held July 17 in Buffalo.
The theme of her Columbia celebration was “Amazing Grace,” a classic hymn that she said embodies her religious life.
“I believe grace truly has brought me this far in my work and kept me going,” she said. “God’s grace has been evident in all the people who supported me along the way.”
She received a bachelor’s of science in elementary education from the University of the District of Columbia and a master’s from Buffalo State University.
Over the years, she has worked as principal at Resurrection Catholic School in Montgomery, Ala.; Our Lady of Mercy School in Fort Worth, Texas; Catholic Central School in Buffalo; and the former St. Jude Catholic School in Sumter.
She was working in Buffalo in 2006 when she received a call that brought her back to South Carolina. Franciscan Father Paul Williams, who was pastor at St. Martin de Porres, asked her to come to Columbia to lead the parish school, which was struggling.
Ten years later, she is still a dynamic presence at the helm of the school, where 87 students from pre-K to sixth grade all work daily under the motto she established: “Everybody is a shining star!”
Sister Roberta endeavored to get parents and parishioners more involved in the daily life of the school, and introduced new activities, from nutrition programs to cultural events.
“I get the sense that the kids here have really learned to love school, that they have a love of learning,” she said.
Her focus on education also led her to influence future generations of teachers. She was an adjunct professor in education at Alabama State University in Montgomery and Niagara University in Buffalo.
“I loved doing that because I wanted to really help prepare young people who had a desire to be teachers,” she said. “I wanted them to know there is a real difference in just getting a teaching degree and in really wanting to educate kids and prepare them for the future.”
Sister Roberta has promoted unity and celebrated the ministry of African-American women religious around the country. In 2009, she was elected to a five-year term as president of the National Conference of Black Sisters.
The group’s current president, Franciscan Sister Callista Robinson, traveled from Wisconsin to attend Sister Roberta’s celebration in Columbia.
“She has spent her whole life dedicated to evangelization and education, and the students excel wherever she has been principal,” Sister Callista said of her colleague. “Even her non-Catholic students learn about the mission of the faith and what it means to be a Christian. Sister Roberta also just really, really loves working with people.”
Sister Roberta says it is hard to believe half a century has passed since she entered religious life.
Nothing makes her happier, she said, than to hear from her former students and know they are doing well. She still receives letters, emails and visits from those she has taught, and recalled recently hearing from a former student in Buffalo who had become a doctor.
“It’s amazing to hear from them and it lets me know how wonderful this work has been and still is,” she said. “To know you have touched lives brings a great joy. It’s all about those lives I’ve touched, about helping people along the way. And I’m going to keep on doing it, because I love what I do!”