JOHN’S ISLAND — For Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, the director of Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Center, a life of service is something she felt called to as a Catholic schoolgirl at Bishop England 45 years ago.
“I remember watching Sister Anthony,” she explained, referring to the former director of the Neighborhood House in North Charleston. “She was so one with the community that she helped. Even as a young girl, seeing Sister Anthony at work tapped into something inside me.”
Sister Ritter has followed this call since she entered formation in 1960 at the age of 18. She is one of 25 Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, an order that was the vision of Bishop John England in 1829.
Bishop England was the first bishop of Charleston, Sister Ritter noted, and the Sisters of Charity are his “only living legacy.”
Following three years of formation on James Island, Sister Ritter went away to study and prepare for the ministry in St. Louis, Mo.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher, so elementary education was the field that I chose to study,” said Ritter. “I love children.”
She spent several years teaching in schools in South Carolina before she went to New Jersey to serve as a principal in a local school.
“I got my master’s degree at Seton Hall in learning to be a principal while at the same time working as a principal,” she said.
Following nearly 10 years in the educational field, she was called upon to go to school in Iowa to study theology.
“After the Second Vatican Council many things changed, and I was asked to become the director of formation training for those who were inquiring about religious life,” she said.
Her next ministry was in pastoral care at the St. Francis Hospital in Charleston. At the time the hospital was under the leadership and direction of the Diocese of Charleston, but in 1989 all of that changed.
“The hospital changed ownership that year,” said Sister Ritter. “We transferred ownership to the Bon Secours Health System.”
It was this transfer of ownership that led to the outreach center that is now Sister Ritter’s primary passion.
“Bon Secours gave us funding because of our years of service in the hospital, and it was with these funds that we were able to establish the outreach center.”
The outreach began with a staff of five people who served the communities of James, John’s, and Wadmalaw Islands with a mission “to offer educational, health, housing, and outreach services to people in need while encouraging and supporting self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and community development,” according to the center’s mission statement.
“We started out in a small house where we were offering food, clothing, and financial support,” said Sister Ritter. “One day I realized that we needed to educate these people so that they could learn to help themselves.”
This step into the field of education created a need for a larger facility.
“The land where we are today was purchased in 1991, and we have really seen this ministry grow,” she said.
Today the center, which is in its fifteenth year helping those in need, offers classes in parenting, GED preparation and English as a second language, as well as an after-school program for children. The center’s Wellness House also provides prenatal and full dental care for the island residents. The funding primarily comes from donations, an annual benefit golf tournament, and an auction.
Sister Ritter said that anyone who comes through the doors of the center receives assistance. Some people only need help once, while others become ongoing clients. One example was a woman and her daughter whom Ritter has been helping for quite a while.
“The daughter has asthma, and I realized that the house she was in wasn’t helping her to get any better,” she explained. “I am helping the mother look for a new trailer now. She also makes sweetgrass baskets, so I made up some little business cards. When students come here to volunteer, she comes and sells her baskets. So she is able to take what she knows and turn it into a business.”
Sister Ritter said that this was just one of many examples of the success that the outreach sees.
“I would say that we easily help more than 5,000 people each year,” she said. “I enjoy people so much. The economically poor have taught me so much about God and divine providence.”
Sister Joan Looney, a Dominican sister who teaches the English as a second language courses, said that she has a deep admiration for Sister Ritter’s love for the poor and needy.
“She is always open to anyone who walks through the doors, and she is a wonderful director,” said Sister Looney. “She engenders a team spirit and recognizes gifts in the staff as well as those whom we serve.”
The many hours of serving that Sister Ritter puts in means that there are times when she is physically exhausted.
“The great thing about the staff is that we take time to play together,” said Sister Ritter. “We take retreat days for planning or just listening to what God is saying to us in our hearts.”
At 62, when many people are looking forward to retirement, Sister Ritter has no plans for slowing down.
“I believe that I am doing the right thing in the right place, and I plan to be here until I can’t be here anymore,” she said. “I don’t believe that one ever retires from religious life. When I can’t do this anymore I will retire to a ministry of prayer. I don’t ever want to be separated from the needs of the church.”
Want to help?
This year’s annual outreach center auction will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Riverview Hotel in Charleston. For more information contact the OLM Outreach Center at (843) 559-4109.