Sister Ritter honored by foundation for selfless community giving

CHARLESTON — Sister Mary Joseph Ritter of Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach is the 24th recipient of the Coastal Community Foundation’s Haven Award for Selfless Community Giving. Sister Ritter received the award at a Sept. 22 event at the Charleston Place Hotel.

Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina (CCF) is a public grant-making foundation that fosters philanthropy in Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown, Hampton and Jasper counties. It was established in 1974.

According to its press release, CCF manages 360 funds with $104 million in combined assets, which generated $4.8 million in grants to more than 500 nonprofits last year alone.

The Haven Award has been presented to outstanding community leaders throughout the tri-county area since 1983. It was first given to Malcolm D. Haven, one of CCF’s founding members. The past recipients are people who have been selfless about community giving, whether financially or by their commitment to a cause. Nominations for the Haven Award come from the community at large, and a committee of community citizens makes the selection.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a past recipient, presented the award along with George Miller, former CCF board member and Johns Island community activist, and Mary Frances Brown, a longtime community leader on Wadmalaw Island.

“Sister Mary Joseph has been called the Mother Teresa of the Sea Islands, and I cannot think of a better way to describe her work,” Riley said. The mayor was a classmate of Sister Mary Joseph at Bishop England High School.

Sister Ritter is a native Charlestonian who entered the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in 1960. She spent several years teaching in South Carolina and New Jersey, and earned a master’s degree at Seton Hall University during that time.

Sister Ritter returned to the Lowcountry to serve in pastoral care at St. Francis Hospital until it was sold in the late 1980s. The order decided to create the Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach with some of the proceeds.

The OLM Outreach Center is located on Brownswood Road off of Main Road and serves residents in need on Johns, James and Wadmalaw islands. It opened its doors on Johns Island on Sept. 11, 1989, just 10 days before Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast. The outreach and its volunteers were soon hard at work restoring homes and replacing belongings. Many islanders remember the Neighborly Assistance in Living Safely, known as NAILS, and the Nun Better Roofing Company with Sister Carol Wentworth.

Sister Ritter has run the outreach with a firm and compassionate hand. More than 5,000 people are helped each year, whether with food and clothing, assistance in finding affordable housing, literacy, GEDs, citizenship, and English as a Second Language classes. There is also a women’s health and dental clinic at Wellness House, a comprehensive dental program with 15 part-time dentists, and prenatal and midwifery services.

A new education building allows volunteers to provide after-school and summer programs to help children form good learning habits and skills and find the necessary confidence to succeed. Thanks to the outreach, those in need know where to look for assistance.

“There are many more powerful political individuals, and many more able to do great philanthropic works,” said Miller. “But there are few who have devoted their entire being to improve the lives of others.”

The outreach has worked closely with the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity. The center provided funds to purchase land for the Island Estate development which includes 27 Habitat homes and a small convent so the sisters can live among the people they serve.

Steven J. Koenig, who owns his own construction company and has worked with the center in the partnership with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, put it simply: “Sister Mary Joseph is the closest thing to a saint I have ever met. Saints rarely seek recognition, but she richly deserves the award.”

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the sisters’ arrival on the island, and also the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy order in Charleston in 1829.

“Recognizing Sister Mary Joseph seems a fitting way to say thank you to all the sisters and staff of Our Lady of Mercy Outreach for 15 wonderful years of service to our community,” said Brown.

Other recipients of the Haven Award have been: Margot S. Freudenberg, Jean C. Voegeli, Henry J. Lee, Joseph P. Griffith, William “Bill” Saunders, J. Edwin Schachte Jr., Verona Knisely, Christine O. Jackson, Major General James A. Grimsley Jr., William Ackerman, Henry C.J. Tecklenburg, Mary Croghan Ramsay, Burton R. Schools, Linda G. Ketner, Edward E. Ledford, Dr. Theodore S. Stern, Edwin S. Pearlstine, Anita Zucker, Hugh C. Lane, Dee Holmes Norton, and Dr. Charles P. Darby.

For more information about Coastal Community Foundation, or to make a gift or request a grant, call (843) 723-3635 or go online to