For 188 years, a religious community of “pioneering women” has been inciting positive change in Charleston
Sister Mary Joseph Ritter (seated) is general superior of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. Archivist Sister Anne Francis Campbell (standing)
is responsible for the Heritage Room (shown below) at the James Island Motherhouse.
After the Civil War, Charleston’s Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy made the long journey to Washington, DC, to petition Congress for funds to rebuild their orphan asylum. Fortunately, when the Union shell exploded beside the convent, the children had been safe in Sumter, and six of the sisters were away tending Confederate and Union soldiers in a Virginia hospital. The sisters who remained in Charleston had simply carried on, with Sister Xavier Dunn captaining a horse-drawn ambulance as they visited soldiers in prisons and hospitals, bearing food, clothing, and messages from loved ones.
The soldiers returned the kindness they received. Solicited by the enterprising sisters, they wrote letters urging their legislators to support the orphanage petition, and in 1871, Congress granted the project $12,000. The sisters were able to continue caring for orphans for another 120 years.
“Women religious were movers and shakers from the beginning of our country,” notes Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, general superior of the community today called the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy (OLM). “These sisters bravely accomplished many things.”
Their first “move” was big: in 1829, Bishop John England sailed from Baltimore with four women who were committed to spending their lives serving the poor, uneducated, sick, and orphaned. He established the new religious community, and the sisters set to work. Over the years, they opened too many South Carolina schools to list. And after decades of hiking through the city’s poorest neighborhoods, treating the sick in their homes, they established St. Francis Xavier Hospital in 1882 and a Nurses’ Training School 18 years later.
“We have always been a group of women willing to adapt to the times,” says Sister Mary Joseph. “If something lost relevance, we changed it, always putting the needs of the people first.”
Thus, when big changes came to healthcare in the 1980s, OLM decided to sell St. Francis Xavier—as well as a hospital they were running in York, South Carolina—to Bon Secours Health Care System (which would become Roper St. Francis). It was a move that allowed the sisters “to preserve a most significant part of our history as pioneering women in the Catholic Church,” noted general superior Sister M. Bridget Sullivan at the time.
And then they were off to pioneer something new: Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach, which opened on John’s Island in 1989, just weeks ahead of Hurricane Hugo. Sister Mary Joseph, along with Sisters Mary Albert Greer and Carol Wenworth, led the way in serving impoverished residents of John’s, James, and Wadmalaw islands with clothing and food pantries, educational courses, emergency financial help, and a Wellness Center offering everything from dental to prenatal care. In 2005, The Neighborhood House—which OLM founded in 1915—came under the Outreach’s umbrella, offering some of the same services to downtown residents, including a soup kitchen.
On September 9, Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach celebrates the 113-year-old Neighborhood House (left), whose facility was just renovated; find details at olmoutreach.org.
(Right) Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach offers after-school help.
And then it was time to adapt again. Sister Mary Joseph was elected general superior in 2012, and that meant OLM needed to hire a new executive director for the Outreach. Now helmed by Ericka Plater and assisting some 5,000 people per year, the nonprofit implemented a new strategic plan in July and this month celebrates the reopening of the just-renovated Neighborhood House.
After necessary updates to the America Street structure—including air conditioning improvements, energy-efficient windows, fresh paint, and welcoming signage—“Clients can be served in a place that feels and looks good, when so much around them doesn’t feel and look good,” notes Plater. “We’re looking forward to a big event on September 9 celebrating the anchor that Neighborhood House has been in the community for more than 100 years.”
In addition to their involvement with the Outreach, OLM’s 13 sisters—some of whom are retired—continue giving in their own ways. Sister Mary Cyril Murray visits patients in hospitals and nursing homes; Sister Ann Billard provides “Transformative Aging” programs for elder religious throughout North America; and Sister Donna Lareau supervises the Adult Formation programs in a local parish. OLM also offers scholarships to Catholic schools and Bishop England High while maintaining a grants program. Overall, says Sister Mary Joseph, “We are very focused on ensuring that the mission for which we were founded lives on.”
Photographs courtesy of (Neighborhood House) Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy & (Outreach) Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach