CHARLESTON—Colie Stokes was a young woman working as a telephone operator in Florence when she handled a phone call that changed her life.
The call was to Buffalo, New York, coming from a woman who was helping a community of nuns serving in Florence County.
Those religious women were the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, and that phone call led Stokes, raised Baptist, to explore the Church, convert and eventually join the order. This year, she is sharing in the community’s bicentennial celebration.
The order was founded in Belgium in 1819 by Father Nicholas Minsart, seeking to help people in the wake of the French Revolution. The first two women to join helped poor people learn sewing to make a living, and also taught them the faith.
That dual commitment to spreading the Gospel and helping the poor has been the order’s charism ever since. The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur arrived in South Carolina in 1948 and set to work in schools serving African American children in Sumter.
“We have always lived among the poor and we have always sought out people in need,” said Sister Mary Veronica White, who spent 21 years at St. Jude Church and schools, which have since closed. They also promoted equality and integration and were among the first in the Sumter area to accept both black and white students.
“The sisters have had a huge impact over the years in their work in education and on the forefront of civil rights,” Sister Colie said.
The sisters also expanded their ministry to Florence, Hampton County and Kingstree, where their work in the black community attracted the interest of a young Roberta Fulton. Like Sister Colie before her, the living example of faith led her to Catholicism and to join the order. Sister Roberta returned to the diocese to serve as principal at St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia, and is now assistant director of evangelization to black Catholics.
She and Sister Colie, who works at Blessed Sacrament Church in Charleston, are among five members of the community still here.
Sister Sandra Makowski, diocesan chancellor and vicar for women religious, joined the community in 1965 and spent her years as a novice in Belgium, where she was able to walk the path of the very first sisters.
Reflecting on the order’s motto — In the simplicity of my heart, I joyfully offer all to God — Sister Sandra said she sees that lived out over their 200 years, and is continually overwhelmed by the stories she has heard about the early days.
“When our sisters first came south, they were devoted to the people here and the people became so trusting of and devoted to the sisters,” she said.
It is through this service and encounters of faith that the women gained valuable knowledge, Sister Mary Veronica said.
“Many of our sisters have said that we came to places like South Carolina to evangelize among the poor, but in reality it is the poor who evangelize us and teach us,” she said. “We learn acceptance and humility, and the importance of taking care of any need that emerges.”