Our Lady of Mercy Sisters spread the Gospel in Charleston

December: To offer my life and my work in total consecration to service of the Gospel. Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5: 39

The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, reminds us that “all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness, according to the apostle’s saying: ‘for this is the will of God, your sanctification'” (1 Thessalonians 4: 3; cf. Ephesians 1: 4).

This call to holiness has been lived out through the 20 centuries of the life of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the nearly five centuries in which that same church has been active in South Carolina. We see it in the lives of the saints particularly, but also in the lives of those who worked so hard to establish the Roman Catholic Church in South Carolina  those who offered their lives and work in total consecration to the service of the Gospel.

One such group that did exactly that, and continues to do so, is a group of women who are quite literally consecrated to the service of the Gospel in our diocese. The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy were formally established by the first bishop of Charleston, John England, in 1829. Bishop England knew that if the Catholic presence in South Carolina was to be firmly established it would take an incredible amount of hard work not only on his part as the new bishop, but also a great deal of cooperation and commitment from the laity whom he had been entrusted with to teach, govern, and sanctify. He did not have to search for long to find committed Catholics who would assist him in this endeavor. Over the course of the last year we have seen some of them: Fathers Simon Felix Gallagher, James Andrew Corcoran, as well as members of the laity like Nathalie Sumter, William Gaston, and Joanna England. But perhaps the most influential members of the laity who consecrated themselves to the work of the Gospel in a formal sense were the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.

The founding members of this new diocesan order were Mary Joseph and Honora O’Gorman, two sisters originally from the city of Cork in Ireland.

This was Bishop England’s native city, and it happened that the O’Gorman sisters had already come to America and had settled in Baltimore. When Bishop England expressed the desire to begin a diocesan order of women religious they offered to assist him by becoming the first members of this new congregation. By November of 1829 they had come to Charleston from Baltimore and were joined by their niece, Teresa Barry, as well as Miss Julia Datty, a resident of Charleston who had come to the city as a child following the outbreak of the French Revolution on Santo Domingo over 30 years before.

These four ladies were the founding members of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy and in offering themselves in the service of the Gospel they helped to lay the stable foundations of the Roman Catholic Church in the new Diocese of Charleston. Verbal permission to formally begin the order was granted to Bishop England by the pope, and the four ladies took simple vows on Dec. 8, 1830. They were soon established in Charleston in a small house on Beaufain Street and opened a school for girls not far from the bishop’s residence. The initial reluctance manifested toward them by the citizens of Charleston, many of whom had never seen a Catholic sister, soon faded as they put into practice their consecration to the work of the Gospel.

They gradually attracted more members, some from Ireland and some from America, who wished to share in their work, and by 1839, they had moved to larger accommodations on Queen Street near the cathedral. This remained their home for the next 120 years until they moved to a larger site on James Island in 1959.

Despite their initial success there were apparently some internal problems to be overcome. Upon his return from a voyage in 1835, Bishop England was distressed to find that the sisters had fallen into disorder and that their work of being faithful witnesses for the Gospel was suffering because of it. He approached the situation carefully, knowing that in order to bring stability to the sisters and to effectively unite them they would have to faithfully live by a rule of life and follow a particular charism.

Their rule of life provided a stable community centered around community life and prayer and their charism was to be witnesses to the Gospel through teaching and caring for the sick. Without a commitment to these guiding principles, the difficulties and divisions which could be glossed over in the short term would continue to plague the order in the long run. In a letter written at the time, he discussed how he decided to bring unity to the divided order: “I have by great application framed their rules, and re-established them in peace, charity, regularity and piety … They are now exceedingly useful.” From that point on, despite occasional difficulties, the sisters were successful witnesses to the Gospel through their faithfulness to their rule of life and their charism.

As the order continued to grow the sisters were actively engaged in education and health care in the city of Charleston, and within a short time they established houses in Savannah, Wilmington, and Sumter, carrying on the same work. Under the guidance of Bishop England the order laid firm foundations and effectively carried out the work of the Gospel in the Diocese of Charleston. Following the death of their founder in 1842 their commitment to the rule of life and their charism of teaching and caring for the sick did not waver. It is because of this that the order still lives, and even though its numbers have diminished in recent years, the work continues. After more than 170 years of service, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy continue to be examples of how each person, whether formally professed as a member of a religious order or simply professed as a Roman Catholic through the grace of baptism, can be consecrated as a faithful witness to the Gospel in the world today through their lives and work.

Father Scott J.A. Buchanan is administrator of St. Ann Church in Holly Hill and moderator of St. Mary Church in Summerton.