Catholic Charities coordinator retires to pursue new dream


COLUMBIA — A woman whose life has been a constant voyage of discovery and accomplishment has decided to add to that richness by pursuing further dreams.

On Sept. 25, Marguerite A. Sookikian, known to thousands in the Diocese of Charleston as Peggy, will retire as regional coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Midlands.

Peggy Sookikian has worked for the diocese since 1981; she was director of Migration and Refugees Services under Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler and ran the seminal Ecumenical Commission from 1983-89. She took over Catholic Charities when Bishop David B. Thompson was installed as ordinary of Charleston. She also coordinated the gathering of ministers of different faiths for the papal visit to Columbia in 1987, was the chairperson of two National Workshops for Christian Unity and an officer, possibly the first lay officer, of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers in 1988 and 1989.

During her 17 years in diocesan work, Sookikian also earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religious studies at the University of South Carolina, raised five children and five foster children, and helped settle dozens of Vietnamese boat people into lives in America.

From 1979 to 1992, a total of 22 refugees lived in the Sookikian home at one time or another, one for as long as 13 years.

For one unforgettable year she had six teen-agers living under her roof.

Yet, her marriage to Chuck Sookikian has lasted. The secret to her marital longevity was revealed on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary last year. Chuck, who’s fromBrooklyn, has remained a faithful Dodger fan; Peggy, originally from Boston, likes the Red Sox.

“We decided to stay married until the two teams meet in the World Series,” she told Father Joe Wahl, who presided over the celebration of the renewal of their vows. He told the secret to the congregation at their home parish, Our Lady of the Hills.

After an Air Force career that took them around the world, the Sookikians decided to settle in South Carolina. Before long, Peggy was back in foreign lands, having been sent by the diocese to Bataan in the Philippine Islands to teach refugees there.

That was the beginning of a long and interesting diocesan career.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “I learned a lot. I learned that a poor person’s reality is not always the same as my reality.”

Not that Peggy ever made much more money than some of her clients. She still drives a used car and worries about every penny she spends at Catholic Charities.

“I never aspired to a big house on the hill. I think that what you’re called to do in life is what you ought to do,” she said.

Sookikian has noticed many changes over the years in the diocese. She noted that Bishop Unterkoefler was right for his time, but that Bishop Thompson’s tenure began just as the growing nature of the Church of Charleston required a tightening of controls and a more professional approach to operations. She thinks that education is the key to successful ministry in the Church and is glad to see the number of Carolina Catholics interested in the new Institute for Parish Leadership and Development.

Just like anyone else who deals with poverty on a regular basis, Sookikian has had to confront a great amount of unfairness over the years. She is proud of her long association with Catholic Charities, however, which enjoys a worldwide reputation for responsiveness to need.

She has seen much change in her social work, too.

“We’re not focused mainly on direct services now; we’re trying to help people to help themselves,” she said.

Changes in the church can bother the faithful, but this grandmother of five has a positive attitude about that. She said that the “Holy Spirit might just be guiding us into the new century. Lay people are called by the Church to do more today. That’s our baptismal responsibility.”

Sookikian will continue to answer that baptismal call as her journey in faith continues into her retirement. She has volunteered to be the parish group coordinator for the Poverella Program, a Catholic “Putting Families First” agenda, at Our Lady of the Hills, and will be publishing the parish newsletter.

She also plans to help more with her grandchildren, read and learn to garden. Her work schedule for her church never permitted much of that before, but Peggy Sookikian has no regrets.

“I’m not sorry I took the trip,” she said.

For Peggy Sookikian, one trip is ending and another has just begun.