By KATHRYN SMITH
ANDERSON — The pretty Victorian house with its white gingerbread trim and lace curtains isn’t the sort of place you would usually associate with the word “convent,” but it serves as one for two Irish-born nuns who are ministering to the congregation of St. Mary’s Church in Anderson.
Sister Elise Gorman and Sister Reginald Nicholson, members of the Massachusetts-based Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception, came to Anderson last summer to assist Father David L. Hyman at the smaller of Anderson’s two Catholic churches. St. Mary’s has about 170 members and is probably the most racially diverse congregation of any church in the city, about 50-50 black and white.
Although both sisters had been living in their native Ireland before the move to Anderson, they have spent most of their adult lives in the United States. They were familiar with the South, having taught at Catholic schools in Georgia’s Savannah Diocese. The two are living on the salary paid to Sister Elise from a one-year grant made by the Diocesan Development Fund. They plan to spend five years in Anderson.
During an interview one gorgeous spring afternoon, the sisters talked about their work in Anderson, race relations and their hopes for peace in their native land. Both were dressed in brown, the color of their order, Sister Elise in a skirt and embroidered sweater, Sister Reginald in a jumper. Their convent, which Sister Reginald feels is far too grand, was furnished entirely with donations from the parishioners.
The convent on East Franklin Street is in the heart of Anderson’s downtown historic district, a feast-and-famine neighborhood where elegant restored homes co-exist with tumble-down shacks. The location, also near St. Mary’s, is ideal for Sister Reginald, who is within walking distance of many of the places she serves as an outreach worker: the city jail, the soup kitchen and the public library, where she tutors parolees. She has also called on every home in a five-block radius of the church, bringing bread to the poor.
“She’s wonderful,” says Kristi King, director of the local Anderson Interfaith Ministries charity. “She’s been working in our food pantry. She’s such a warm and giving and caring individual.”
Sister Elise, who has an office at the church and serves as St. Mary’s pastoral associate, has focused on evangelization and Catholic instruction. Among her students is Anderson insurance agent Terrence Roberts, who will be joining the church at Easter. A United Methodist by upbringing, Roberts has been attending the Catholic church since he married a Catholic 14 years ago and entered the instruction class last fall. He praises Sister Elise’s ability to translate difficult concepts into layman’s terms, and notes that even the “cradle Catholics” who have been attending the class in support are fully understanding some things for the first time. “She’s obviously committed to what she’s doing, very good, very knowledgeable,” Roberts said.
But the sisters’ biggest fan may be Father David Hyman himself, who tried for two years to get nuns assigned to his church. Father David, who had run St. Mary’s on his own, is happy to have help in order to expand the church’s work. “Things have gone forward very dramatically,” he said. Sister Reginald has been assigned to work with a new outreach group at the church, while Sister Elise works with an evangelization group.
The nuns’ personalities have meshed well with the people in Anderson, too. “They’re both great and they fit perfectly with the community and the parishioners. The people took to them and they took to the people,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the sisters say the most gratifying aspect of their work in Anderson has been their reception by the people. “I find it to be the most hospitable parish I’ve ever been in,” declares Sister Elise.
The sisters begin and end their days together with prayer, but in between times they pretty much go their own way. Sister Reginald is often on foot, visiting inmates at the city jail, calling on parishioners at the hospital or assisting local charities in their work. Sister Elise may work at the church, or attend any number of community meetings as St. Mary’s representative. She has been working closely with the Omega Project, which has chosen Anderson as one of three pilot sites in the state. The Omega Project organizes discussion groups of blacks and whites who are encouraged to talk frankly about their lives and issues in which race is a factor.
As a Catholic raised in Northern Ireland, Sister Elise feels considerable empathy with black people in America. She says many of the life experiences they have talked about — being denied the best education and jobs because of their color — compares to her childhood experiences as a member of a minority faith.
Both sisters expressed hope about the peace talks going on in Ireland, though Sister Elise says, “It’s going to be a long struggle.” The crucial difference may be Prime Minister Tony Blair and British Secretary for Northern Ireland Marjorie Mowlan, who Sister Elise describes as “very open-minded.” She says, “They’re lucky they have those two to work with.”
The same could be said of St. Mary’s Church and the sisters.