“God’s geese,” they called them in Baltimore and Los Angeles. “The big hat Charities,” were what the students at Bishop England called them — until they modified their outfits in the later 1960s. They were religious sisters who wore blue habits and white cornettes, those winged things that were a remnant of headgear that might more likely have been worn by 17th-century French women. The Daughters of Charity were and are among the sisters and nuns who have served in South Carolina. Although none of that religious community are currently at Bishop England High School, they were, until recently, serving the poor at outreach centers in Georgetown and Gloverville. Now, three Daughters of Charity serve at the Mercy Mission in Hardeeville.
The “big hats” were far from the first sisters to minister to children, youth, adults and the poor in the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. That distinction is held by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, commonly known as the OLM’s, who were established as a diocesan community of sisters by Bishop John England in 1829.
The first Sisters in Charleston
The OLM’s, who began with only four sisters, rapidly grew large enough to undertake administering and teaching in Catholic schools, holding catechetical classes for white and black, slave and free children, housing orphans, establishing and staffing infirmaries, hospitals and outreach centers. They nursed the ill back to health and ministered to the dying during the 19th century yellow fever epidemic and gained Congressional recognition for their service to wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, during the War Between the States. The OLM legacy lives on today in the varied services individual sisters provide and in Neighborhood House, Charleston and Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Mission, Johns Island and in the names and history of Roper St. Francis and Bon Secours St. Francis Hospitals.
As Bishop John England’s tenure went on, the OLM sisters were joined by the Ursuline Sisters, who arrived from Cincinnati to establish the girls’ academy in Columbia which was the forerunner of today’s Cardinal Newman School, along with other Catholic schools and facilities. The story of Mother Baptista Lynch, the Ursuline sister of the third bishop of Charleston and her standoff with General Sherman is a colorful one. Ursuline sisters served in Columbia well into the 2010s. In addition, numerous religious orders and congregations of sisters have served across the state, founding schools, home health and social services, outreach centers, retreat centers and parish and diocesan ministries.
Two sisters who named saints by the Catholic Church visited and impacted the Diocese of Charleston. St. Teresa of Kolkata, a.k.a. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, visited the diocese in the 1980s and buttressed the dedication of the faithful to the service of the poorest of the poor. St. Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heir to the Drexel family fortune and founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, visited the state in the early 20th century and provided funding for the education of a number of young men and women who attended boarding schools that her community operated in Virginia. As parishioners from St. Gerard Church in Aiken attest to this day, Mother Katharine not only provided an academic and religious secondary education for youth in these boarding schools, but she also assured that they were prepared for professional careers and participation in the civic community. Some solemnly declare that Mother Katharine not only saved souls but, in an era known for lynchings, she also may well have saved lives. The Drexel fortune built Xavier University in Louisiana, the first post-secondary school devoted to African American students and schools and missions serving Native Americans and African Americans across the country. A number of parishes and schools in this state benefited from Mother Katharine’s largesse.
These two saints are the famous ones, but the impact of thousands of sisters from scores of religious communities has marked the history of the Palmetto State. As of a late 2019 count, 22 communities including sisters from the U.S., India, Mexico and Africa are ministering to people in the Palmetto State.
How the Catholic Sisterhood developed
To understand who these women were and are, it may help to take a brief look at the history of Catholic women who go by the name “Sister” (or “Madre” in Mexico). In the First Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul refers to the “enrollment” of prayerful, virtuous and charitable widows who are at least 60 years old in roles of church service. These would seem to be the precursors of those of us who have taken on full-time ministry in the church as vowed members of organized religious communities. By the second and third centuries of the Christian era, a number of Christian men and women found themselves called to lives of solitude and prayer, typically retreating to the desert. These were known as “abbas” and “ammas” (fathers and mothers) and their unique vocations were recognized by the Church. St. Jerome, the fourth century translator of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into everyday Latin, is said to have tutored a group of dedicated widows and consecrated virgins.
In the sixth century, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica began the monastic movement, in which men and women, younger or older, withdrew from secular society, banded together in monasteries, worked and prayed together and submitted to a prescribed rule of life. It was these monks and nuns whose monasteries, with their gardens and farms, often became the focal point of surrounding communities. They also became centers of learning and arts, amid a daily round of recitation and chanting of psalms and readings from Sacred Scripture.
The next developmental leap came in the 13th century, when St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi formed new models of communal life. Dominic emphasized prayer, study and public preaching, while Francis emphasized radical poverty and an evangelical spirit. Then came St. Vincent de Paul, who in the 17th century, foresaw the need for women bonded together by vows (to God, to the church and to one another in an organized community) who would lead lives that did not have the boundaries of monastic life but rather were visibly active in not only religious circles but the civic community — serving the poor, teaching outside monastic settings, nursing the sick and so on.
After Vincent, the new communities that developed tended to follow this model, an apostolic one. One of our religious orders in S.C. is monastic, the Order of St. Clare (Poor Clares) of Travelers Rest. They follow a daily order of prayer and, with few exceptions, reserve their ministries to those that can be done within their monastery. They are cloistered Franciscans, as was the lifestyle required of women religious in the era of St. Francis and his friend and spiritual colleague, Clare of Assisi. Properly speaking, these sisters are “nuns.” The rest of us, because we are not cloistered, are simply called “sisters,” though in common parlance we’re often referred to as nuns.
Each religious community has its own spirit, its own story and its own founding purposes. My own, the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius, was founded in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region in 1909. Initially, we served the Slovak immigrant community. Thus, we took the name of the Greek brothers who evangelized much of the Slavic world in the 900s A.D. We were invited to S.C. in 1946 by the famous Msgr. “Doc” O’Brien, co-founder and long-time rector of Bishop England High School. Because he had grown up in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area and had taught some of our sisters at what is now Marywood University, he recruited us to come here. By that time, we had spread from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, New York, Indiana, Illinois and, briefly, Ohio. Our four-fold mission, as we describe it in today’s terms, can be identified by what we call our “Four E’s” — evangelization, education, elder care and ecumenism. So we came and started Blessed Sacrament School and Nativity School in Charleston and St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, have had individual sisters in hospital, parish and diocesan ministry and now operate St. Francis Center on St. Helena Island, servicing the poor — many of them Gullah-Geechee, many elderly, some Spanish-speaking migrants, some Anglos who have fallen on hard times.
Common threads and the spirit of giving
If one were to interview sisters from any of the groups now in our state, one would find common threads in the story. Among the common threads, understand that our sense of call is tested in a training period (novitiate and temporary vows, followed by a formal commitment); we all have customs of common prayer and retreats; and we all have made our communities the equivalent of family, along with the people we serve.
Our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience mean that we do the following: Pool our resources, so that salaries or stipends that come by virtue of our work go into the common pot to support various ministries, keep food on the table and provide medical care and the temporal things we need to be active and effective; remain unmarried and live chaste lives; and understand that God’s will comes to us under the umbrella of church and community and that we are missioned by our religious superiors. Reduced to lowest terms, this means that the car I drive isn’t mine, no paycheck is my own and my Social Security is absurdly low — but that we as a community assume responsibility to care for one another. I’m happily in the Diocese of Charleston and I have never been in any one place as long as I have been here, but I am subject to the possibility of being called elsewhere.
None of this makes any sense to anyone, unless he or she makes the connection with the manner in which the early Christians (Acts 4:32-35) are said to have held all things in common and gathered together to pray, share meals and other goods, bear one another’s burdens and rejoice.
Though we don’t own things individually, we do own properties and institutions as not-for-profit corporations serving others. That’s how the OLM community manages to support its outreach and to fund numerous charitable projects. That’s how the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine from Cleveland were able to assure that Providence Hospital in Columbia got built. They mortgaged their motherhouse. And it’s how they continue to offer an array of grants to meet human needs.
That’s how we can have some sisters working full-time but not pulling in pay. We may not have the charisma of Mother Teresa or the family assets available to Mother Katharine, but we do have the wherewithal to keep believing, keep giving and keep doing, in Jesus’ name.
Sister Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., serves as director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and is the author of 14 books, with two additional forthcoming in 2020. If you have a question you might like to see addressed in a future column, please let us know — email Associate Editor Prioleau Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.