SUMTER—Mary Pearl Mathis traveled all the way from Brooklyn, N.Y., to pay tribute to a group of women religious who had a profound effect on her life starting when she was six years old.
Mathis was the first student enrolled in the first grade at St. Jude Catholic School in Sumter when it was started by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in 1948. Members of the order came to South Carolina from their motherhouse in Buffalo that year to teach in schools that served African American children.
She attended the school through eighth grade, then moved to New York many years ago. Mathis regularly visits Sumter and especially wanted to be back in her old hometown the weekend of Oct. 26-27, when hundreds of people joined the sisters to celebrate their order’s bicentennial.
The order was founded in Belgium in 1819 by a priest who wanted to help people in the wake of the French Revolution. The first women who joined taught the poor to sew to earn a living and also taught them the faith. This started the order’s charism of helping the poor and spreading the Gospel.
The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur arrived in the United States in 1863 and established schools in the Northeast. Their ministry expanded to the Southeast in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Dozens of sisters came through Sumter from 1948 until the late ’90s. Teaching was their primary work at St. Jude School, St. Jude Catholic High School, and at early childhood enrichment centers and nurseries, all of which have since closed. During the ’60s, the sisters also ran a boarding school for girls that drew students from all over the state. Today, five of the sisters are still serving in South Carolina.
When the sisters first arrived, segregation was still in full force and many of their former students say that the women were a vital source of education, inspiration and support for Sumter’s black youth during the era.
Attendees said the large, diverse crowd of people that turned out for the celebration was a testament to the lasting impact the sisters had on Sumter as a whole. A celebratory Mass and dinner had to be held at the Sumter Civic Center to handle the crowd.
“These sisters taught us everything, everything,” Mathis said. “They did so much for all the students and for the community. I always get a good feeling when I come back to Sumter, but I especially had to be here to celebrate them.”
Barbara Martin Glisson was another of the first students at St. Jude. She still lives on the same street where she grew up and recalls how the sisters would pay regular visits to the families in her neighborhood.
“I can still remember seeing them walking through the community in their long habits,” she said. “I always wanted to follow after them and follow their example, and for a while I even wanted to be a nun. They gave us all such a good education that stayed with us through our lives.”
Glisson remembers one of the sisters in particular who introduced her to speaking French in third grade, which sparked a love for the language that continues unabated.
William Norris of Columbia completed 12 years at the Sumter Catholic schools, and credits the sisters with giving him a strong education that led to careers in the U.S. Army and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
“The sisters were mother figures to us, and I think that without the discipline and study habits they taught me, I would not be where I am today,” he said. “They taught me how to talk to people, how to get along with people and to always have integrity.”
Norris said the sisters also took time to have fun with their students, and would tie back their long habits so they could play basketball, softball and other sports with the kids in the schoolyard.
The celebration drew several members of the order who served at the Sumter schools. The women all said they were touched by the large turnout and were happy to see the city’s Catholic community thriving at what is now St. Anne and St. Jude Parish and School.
At 84, Sister Rene Roberto said she initially didn’t know if she would be able to make the trip because of health problems, but she beamed from her seat in the civic center as she recalled her time at St. Jude. She taught seventh and eighth grades from 1957 to 1958.
“I was only here a year but I never forgot it,” Sister Rene said. “I just loved all the people here and all the kids I taught. I’ve seen some of my former students and it means so much when they tell me that they remember us.”