St. Ann Center reaches out

KINGSTREE — St. Ann Catholic Outreach Center is one of nine rural centers in the country to be recognized by Save the Children in Williamsburg County, yet their impact is far greater than their numbers indicate.

Two Felician Sisters have labored for five years at St. Ann’s; they have seen the parish rolls grow from 35 families to 52 and they have seen their outreach center grow into one of the few places in this old tobacco town where people of different races and religions meet to work together. Members of the mission parish and members of the local community now recognize the center as a fount of good works that flow to the poor and needy. Outside organizations are starting to see the value of the ministry practiced there.

St. Ann’s Catholic Outreach Center was awarded a program of technical assistance training last month in recognition of its efforts in tutoring children after school. The Save the Children Foundation, in partnership with the Wellesly College School Age Child Care Project, sent Sister Susanne Dziedzic to a leadership institute in Boston in January.

STC experts also talk to the center and its volunteers on a conference call every two weeks and will train them on-site in March. Save the Children is one of many sources of funding and support that the two sisters have solicited for their work with the poor of Kingstree. Anthony Parsons of the South Carolina Extension Service in the county was the initial link with STC three years ago. In addition to the training that comes with the new award, the foundation supports St. Ann Catholic Outreach center with $5,000 annually.

“Since they were conducting site visits in connection with their support, they got to know the work we’re doing,” Sister Susanne said. “We were chosen as one of nine rural centers in the country to be part of an initiative to promote and improve the quality of out-of-school experiences.”

Other sources of funding for the outreach are the Diocesan Development Fund, United Way, the Felician Sisters community in Buffalo, grants, tithes from parishes in the Diocese of St. Ann Charleston and donations from family and friends. One of those donations came in the form of a curious gift. The two sisters and the volunteers who work with them repair homes for poor people; in the late spring and summer, groups of volunteers from the northeast journey down to Williamsburg County to spend a week helping with those repairs.

That undertaking has become so much a part of the sisters’ persona that Sister Johnna Ciezobka’s parents sent her a power saw as a Christmas gift this year. She loved the practical present and has only one complaint: “There are not enough hours in the day.”

The major emphasis for St. Ann is the after-school tutoring it offers Monday through Thursday. More than a dozen parish volunteers tutor students of all ages and help them with their homework. The sisters’ working motto is “We always do one thing for the community here and one thing for the Church.”

So, in addition to the tutoring and home repair programs, St. Ann Catholic Outreach Center also operates other children’s programs, including an ecumenical Bible camp, and a permanent clothing locker. The center has become a place for meetings that would be troublesome in some other locations in this traditional southern town where unemployment runs at 17 percent and where Catholics are as distinct from the norm as blacks.

The Felician Sisters were in the forefront of the seminal Habitat for Humanity effort in Williamsburg County soon after they arrived in 1991. Volunteers of all races and faith traditions soon became used to meeting at the center site. Now it has become known for its hospitality and accepting attitude.

“We are a little hub in town. The community responds to us very well,” Sister Susanne said.

Larger Catholic parishes in South Carolina respond to their needs as much as the people of good will in Kingstree respond to their open doors. Two weeks before Christmas, the 40-year-old furnace in the center died and the sisters and volunteers were resigned to getting through the winter with electric space heaters. It was too far into the season to mount a funding drive.

“But out of the clear came two huge tithes, from Pawley’s Island and Mount Pleasant,” Sister Susanne said.

The money from Precious Blood parish and Christ Our King parish was enough to purchase a new furnace and have it installed. It is God’s timely care that keeps the center going and keeps the sisters energized. They have served through four pastors in their five years in Kingstree; all four of them now tithe to St. Ann.

“We have a little bit of heaven right here,” Sister Susanne said.

That being the case, heaven must be a place where a lot of work gets done. Sister Susanne and Sister Johnna are co-directors of the St. Ann Outreach Center and are also DREs and leaders of the women’s guild, music ministers and lectors at St. Ann’s Church. Now they are also part of the Save the Children Out-of-Schooltime Rural Initiative.