Volunteer program growing in numbers and quarters


CHARLESTON — On April 1 the Diocese of Charleston Volunteer Program will take a major step forward in its development; no fooling.

That’s because the first day of next month is the official move-in date for volunteers to take possession of St. Katharine’s Convent on Wentworth Street.

The building, which has been vacant for the past two years since the last of the Oblate Sisters left the Palmetto State, has been the site of numerous work crews, both professional and amateur, during March. Workers have repaired the central heating and air system, pulled up mildewed carpet, repainted walls, placed tile, refinished hardwood pine floors, and gotten down in the dirt on landscaping chores. Much donated labor has been contributed by the young adult group of St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach, military personnel from the Goose Creek Naval Weapons Station, and the Life Teen group at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Charleston, said Bill Iglesias, director of the diocesan Volunteer Program.

The relocation to the former convent was necessitated by the fact that the former rectory for Our Lady of Mercy Church on America Street, the current volunteer house, is at capacity with four volunteers living there.

According to Bishop Robert J. Baker, the move to the new site has been the plan all along, as the America Street location was to be just one place of ministry among many throughout the state.

The bishop said the new volunteer home is centrally located in an ideal spot with accommodations that are perfectly suited to the program.

New people joining the Diocese of Charleston volunteers, both male and female, will live at the former convent for about six weeks, during which time they will explore various Lowcountry service opportunities, such as visiting shut-ins and the elderly, parish ministry, youth ministry, soup kitchens, clothing centers, and home maintenance.

Following this time of training, the volunteers will then be sent to the ministry site they choose, although they will return to the Holy City every two to three months for a weekend follow-up. Preliminary plans are being developed for service opportunities in Anderson, Kingstree and Georgetown.

Current requirements for the program are that applicants have at least a high school diploma or college degree and can make a commitment of a summer, six months, or possibly a year. The bishop has also suggested that retirees, teachers, and seminarians are especially suited for the various time frames. If accepted into the ministry, volunteers receive a stipend of $100 a month, health insurance, room and board, and an automobile allowance.

“The program has got a good future. I’m inspired by the direction it’s going,” said Bishop Baker. He emphasized that he was impressed with an aspect promoted by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, whose members are required to volunteer a year or two of service to their faith. “If the Mormons, can do it, then Catholics can do it,” the bishop said.

He stressed that ministry will be fitted to the individual person, citing as an example current volunteer Bob Higgins, who started a ministry to seafarers. In addition, Higgins visits patients at Bon Secours-St. Francis Hospital and also assists with the Life Teen program at Blessed Sacrament. He is also working to develop an after school program at Neighborhood House with Dominican Sister Pat Keating, Coastal Deanery coordinator for Catholic Charities.

For those people interested in working with the Hispanic community, the bishop suggested that they learn to speak Spanish.

“I’m encouraged,” Bishop Baker said. “The sky’s the limit. I know there will be many blessings in the Diocese of Charleston because of these volunteers. The spirit, enthusiasm, and desire is there. I’m confident they will not only plug into ministries, but will show us new ones. The church offers us a vision of hope. We must respond to that vision in a spirited way. I’m very optimistic about this effort.”

The bishop said that almost 50 young people came forward at the closing of the diocesan high school youth conference to find out more information about the volunteer program. “The adults need to give direction to these youth, and they will put us to shame,” he said.

Before that can happen, however, the practicalities of outfitting the new Wentworth Street facility take precedence.

Pamela Scott Strich, social and residence administrator for Bishop Baker, has taken on the task of acquiring furnishings for the 18 bedrooms and other living quarters at the former convent.

Each bedroom will be furnished with the following: a wing chair, desk chair, twin headboard, twin bedframe, twin bedspread and mattress, lamp and night stand, window blinds, floor lamp, pillow, blanket, sheet set, mattress cover, and window treatment. The cost for all the items is $750, or $13,500 to outfit all of the bedrooms.

In addition, furniture, such as tables and sofas, is needed for sitting rooms, at a cost of $3,000; the dining area needs an additional $2,500 in furnishings and place settings for 25 persons; $3,000 is needed for chapel chairs and liturgical items; and commercial type dishware and pots must be purchased for the kitchen at a cost of $3,000. Also, a washer, dryer, refrigerator and freezer will be needed by the residents.

Strich said the home is being decorated “simply, but nicely.” Furnishings will be purchased from a wholesale factory outlet in Charleston to reduce costs. Also, Strich said efforts are being made to keep everything uniform in order to expedite upkeep. The color scheme for the house is a flaxen beige with hunter green, and the hardwood flooring will be finished in cherry mahogany.

However, floors in the bedroom will be tiled, necessitating the use of throw rugs as well as area rugs for the sitting rooms.

Currently, the building walls are bare, and donations of artwork are being solicited. Strich said she would like “a nice picture in each bedroom and something for the hallways — any type of art that is uniformly framed.”

Those wishing to make monetary donations can do so by sending a check to Bishop Baker at the Chancery office at 119 Broad St., Charleston SC 29401. A notation should be made that the money is to be used for the St. Katharine Drexel Volunteer House.

Donors will receive an invitation from the bishop to attend a Mass and group opening at the Drexel House in the fall.

Anyone wishing to donate artwork to the home is asked to contact Pamela Strich at (843) 709-4534. For donations of labor to help with refurbishing of the building, such as painting, cleaning, floor finishing, or landscaping, contact Bill Iglesias at (843) 709-1902.