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Our Lady of Mercy nuns helping city's neediest

After 183 years, OLM sisters aging but still serving Charleston

The Post & Courier (Read the original article)
November 18, 2012
By Jennifer Berry Hawes

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. - From "The Glory Be" hymn of praise. Quietly, hushed as the moss-draped woods that nestle their motherhouse, the sisters arrive for daily Mass. Some hustle to the chapel with the vigor of a busy day ahead serving the city's needy. Others file down the hallway from their bedrooms with the slower pace of age and many prayerful hours ahead.Two sisters arrive in wheelchairs. At 104 and 97, they have earned seats up front in positions of honor and proximity to the Eucharist. Morning sunlight reaches through the stained-glass windows, warming the serene silence of the chapel into a womb of prayer. Many sisters still wear the veils that for 183 years have announced their calling to the outside world. The new general superior - and the previous one - does not. The veil, like the habit, is optional today.

With a new sister taking the helm of Charleston's order, this is a new day, or at least a changing one, at the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy's convent on James Island.

May Forest, as the motherhouse is called, is home to an aging and shrinking order of nuns. When the OLM celebrated its 100th birthday in 1929, its numbers included 86 professed sisters and four novices. But fewer and fewer girls these days heed the calling to religious life.

Today, there are 16 OLMs. The last sister to join arrived 26 years ago.

Yet service never ends for these women, not even when - especially not even when - they age and their earthly lives near a close. Nor is Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, the new general superior, about to let them fade into irrelevance.

Changing times

When the nuns elected Ritter, they tapped the director of their most active outreach today.

At 70, she had served as executive director of the nonprofit Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach for 20 years, building it from a small facility to a campus that offers everything from prenatal care to clothing and GED prep.

Becoming general superior meant giving up that position, no easy move for a woman known for her sharp mind and gentle smile.

She was replaced by Jill Jackson Ledford, a layperson. This is the first time in the outreach's history that a nun is not at the helm.

However, the OLMs retain sponsorship of the outreach, and several sisters still work at both of its sites. Ritter is quick to note that won't change.

The sisters launched the outreach on Johns Island using money from the transfer of St. Francis Xavier Hospital to the Bon Secours sisters in 1989. Hurricane Hugo hit just weeks later, cementing the order's role in serving Sea Island communities.

Today, the outreach serves more than 11,000 people a year at its site on Johns Island and at Neighborhood House in a low-income area of downtown Charleston.

Started by the nuns in 1915, Neighborhood House's soup kitchen serves 120 people each day, along with offering GED preparation, clothing, literacy skills, computer skills and emergency financial help.

The Johns Island outreach offers similar services but also focuses on health care, including dental and prenatal services to those in need.

Both have become vibrant, modern examples of the sisters' devotion to the poor.

Did Ledford, a lifelong Methodist, have qualms about filling the shoes of the nun who built and nurtured the outreach?

"Yes!" she exclaims with a laugh.

But Ritter promised her: "I'll be here to support you."

And so, Ledford started Oct. 1. She had been vice president of health promotions with the National Council on Aging, where she oversaw the Center for Healthy Aging. Before that, she founded the Lowcountry Senior Center, managed by Roper St. Francis Healthcare.

When she heard the OLM outreach was looking for a new leader, it seemed to be a divine fit.

"This organization has such a great reputation in the community," Ledford says. "What they do makes such a big difference."

Living history

Down Maria Hall, a quiet dormlike wing for sick and elderly nuns, Sister Helen Grobusky sits at a table, thin tubes in her nose. Virtually resurrected after suffering a stroke last year, the 97-year-old former nurse has developed a recent love for painting shells and other objects. She watches birds at the cherry red feeder she painted, preferring the cardinals and house wrens over the other songbirds that visit just outside her window.

An old framed photo hanging on her bedroom wall shows her decades ago helping to deliver a baby in an old-timey operating room at St. Francis. She grins when someone mentions the day she helped deliver another baby in a parking lot.

But talking soon wears her out, and she dozes off.

A few doors away, the order's oldest member sits in prayer. Sister Brendan Lacey traveled from Ireland to Charleston when she joined the OLM.

She was 16. Today, she is 104.

She still remembers the stormy boat ride to the Holy City. It was August, the heat was oppressive and the sea riled. Already homesick, she was a bit unsettled when they docked. And the two older nuns who picked them up were "very cross."

"Are you the girls for the convent?" she recalls one asking.


"Pick up your bags and follow us."

And so they did. They rode trolley cars to the imposing motherhouse on Legare Street. There, the sisters greeted them with such warmth that, at last, Lacey felt at home in the place she would spend the next 88 years.

Convent life back then operated by routine, often in silence and always defined by prayer, study and hard work serving the poor. Lacey received the dreaded chore of sweeping the stairs, no fun task in the heat, battling a long habit and a sore back.

But hers was a family that served God. She had a younger sister she never met because they were called to convents on different continents. While she was here in Charleston, she had sisters serving in Africa, Australia and England.

Today, she sits in a comfy recliner beneath a crucifix, her silver hair freshly cut, caressing her beloved Irish rosary beads. She carries them always and prays often.

If her time on this Earth ends today, she says she goes in good spirits. Until then, she will keep praying for the town she's served all these years.

"I know that God gives life, so I don't think too expectantly about the future," Lacey. "I just live for today."

Nurturing a city

May Forest, a simple stucco building nestled by woods, overlooks the glittering blue waters of Charleston Harbor and the city these women have long served.

Today, Charleston summons visitors and natives alike to admire its prosperity and beauty.

But it didn't always.

The sisters have served here since even before the Civil War left it in ruins and the ensuing years mired it in poverty and decay. Their story begins in 1829, when Bishop John England traveled from Ireland to Charleston to begin a ministry for orphans. Back then, few Catholics lived in Charleston, and the orphans lived with the nuns.

They had no money to pay for the children's schooling, so the sisters started their own.

It's a lesson for all time, even today.

"Every kind of change brings another challenge," Ritter says.

The OLMs vowed to serve the city's sick and poor. And that is what they've done through war, poverty, fire, earthquake and hurricanes.

During the Civil War, they nurtured sick and injured soldiers from both sides in prisons and hospitals. Some moved inland with orphans while the city was bombarded.

In 1882, they opened St. Francis Hospital with five patients, five nuns and a horse-drawn ambulance. They cared for soldiers wounded in the Spanish-American War and for yellow fever victims when few others would dare. They opened a nursing school.

In 1915, they opened Neighborhood House to serve the urban poor. Sister Anthony Monaghan worked there until 1968, promoting civil rights and fighting poverty. The same year, 1915, they opened Bishop England High School.

Their history goes on.

Now, as they age, the sisters want to preserve their unique role in the city. So they opened the Heritage Room, which the public is invited to tour by appointment.

Inside, there is a map of South Carolina. Rays of lines, like a fan, shoot out from Charleston to all regions of the state to show where they have served. A timeline stretches across one wall.

Black-and-white photos open with nuns in floor-length black habits and veils serving others, working through to the present day, where a display features Sister Ann Billard. With a pastoral counseling doctorate, she holds retreats and workshops to discuss a spiritual model for the aging religious.

She's one of several sisters still very active beyond the motherhouse. Several work at the outreach sites. Others work with the local Catholic diocese. One visits prisons. One teaches at Nativity Catholic School. Others write letters.

"Just because we're small in numbers doesn't mean we don't maintain that spirit," Ritter says.

The sisters might not be as visible around Charleston as they once were. They might not be around forever.

But they will be remembered.

The outside in

May Forest no longer is the secluded, highly structured convent it once was.

Families visit; friends stay for dinner. Visitors can hold retreats and meetings here. Guests fill Saturday Mass. School and church groups tour the Heritage Room, often with the convent's resident historian, Sister Anne Francis Campbell.

Where once nearly all the sisters would have spent their days out in the city, serving its poor and aiding its sick, no sisters serve today at St. Francis Hospital or at many of the area's Catholic schools.

Instead, more serve within the convent's walls.

"We can't look at our numbers as a deterrent. Even though we aren't out there in the community all of the time, we are out there in different ways," Ritter says.

She wants May Forest to become a center of spirituality, where the outside world can come within to seek prayer, solace and the listening ears of the sisters. They actively invite people to come here for everything from retreats and Heritage Room tours to worship and prayer.

That way, the sisters can continue to serve a changing world.

"Service never ends," Ritter adds. "But we all have different seasons of our lives."

Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her at www.facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.

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