Franciscan order celebrates 125th anniversary

COLUMBIA — As their religious order prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary by looking to an uncertain future, two local nuns continue their long service in the Diocese of Charleston with a clear vision of what still needs to be done.

Mother Mary Alfred Moes founded the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis of the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes on April 9, 1878, in Minnesota. Franciscan Sister Helen Chatterton of St. Peter’s in Columbia and Franciscan Sister Colleen Waterman of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston are the only two vowed members of that order in South Carolina, although their numbers are bolstered by lay Franciscan cojourners here and in nearby states.

“It’s true that Sister Colleen and I are alone, but physical togetherness is not necessary for community,” Sister Chatterton said. “There are 15 of us in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, and we have good communication with each other. That adds a lot to the spiritual aspects of togetherness.”

Sister Chatterton is the assistant administrator of St. Peter, a downtown Columbia parish. She has been doing parish work in this diocese since 1978 and sees no end to it anytime soon.

“I entered (our congregation) in 1954, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Forty- nine years sounds like a long time, but I’ve been happy, so that’s why it doesn’t seem long to me,” she said. “I will retire, but only when I can’t do it any more.”

Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, pastor of St. Peter, has worked with Sister Chatterton for the past 20 years, first at Prince of Peace in Taylors and more recently at the mother church of the Midlands.

“She shies away from any kind of publicity, but Sister Helen makes the whole thing work here. To have a share in her ministry has been a real blessing for me,” Msgr. Lehocky said.

She likes a simple life, she said, so her vows of chastity and poverty have been “freeing.” That direction was reinforced for Sister Chatterton when her congregation sent her on pilgrimage to Assisi in 1994.

“I was so impressed by the way Francis lived. Material things can be a burden, and I’ve never felt deprived. I have everything I need,” she said.

Her Franciscan order was also impressed with Assisi and built a motherhouse in Minnesota in 1955. It’s a magnificent setting, called Assisi Heights and modeled after the basilica in Assisi, Italy, including an eight-story bell tower. But its very size and dignity have become factors in the clouded long-term prospects for the property. Another is the congregation’s median age of 70-plus.

“We are just over 300 members now and only a small group are working for viable salaries. So, with the downsizing and the advancing age of our community, I don’t know what the future is,” Sister Chatterton said. “Sometimes you wonder how you can go on, but we’re working for our future. We have a general assembly scheduled for July; we’ll celebrate our founding then and plan. “

Past and present shine brightly for the Franciscan sisters in the Diocese of Charleston, however. In 1884, Mother Alfred Moes convinced Dr. William Worrall Mayo, an Episcopalian, and his two physician sons to staff a hospital that the congregation would build for them. This was the beginning of their affiliation with the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

The sisters also operated colleges and schools through the order’s long and storied history. And the sisters’ work is important for the church today.

The other South Carolina Franciscan from the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes is Iowa native Colleen Waterman. The sister is a nurse who became an advocate for and servant to the poor when she first came to the Diocese of Charleston in 1968.

“Sister Maigread (Conway) began the S.A.I.L. (Summer Achievement in Learning) program in 1966 and many of our community came down to help and got into the ministry to the poor. We did creative educational work for 26 summers,” Sister Waterman said.

After that first summer of S.A.I.L., she stayed to work permanently in poverty ministry. Sisters Conway and Waterman became well-known for their operation of Neighborhood House and Echo House in the poverty-stricken Union Heights section of Charleston. Three decades after they began, and years after Sister Conway died, Sister Waterman still runs Echo House. Although her ministry has included a soup kitchen, senior citizen outreach, literacy tutoring, adult education, sewing classes for mothers, a clothing center, AIDS ministry and prison ministry, the Franciscan says that she is not limited by the past: “We try to meet the needs of people, whatever they are.”

Although she has been a nun for 45 years, she is no more ready to retire than is Sister Chatterton. She still sees many unmet needs, and she still feels the Holy Spirit urging her to help. Besides, she enjoys her life.

“It’s been a fascinating time,” Sister Waterman said. “I never get bored.”

So, on the eve of their order’s important anniversary, both Sister Helen Chatterton and Sister Colleen Waterman look forward to continuing their ministries. Neither expresses any regrets for the lives they lead.

“There are some people who struggle with certainty all of their lives, but I stay because I feel there’s a need I can fill,” said Sister Chatterton.