A look back at 175 years of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy

Editor’s note: On Nov. 28 the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy will celebrate their 175th anniversary. The following history of the sisters was first published in The Miscellany in November 1994.

CHARLESTON — Rooted in charity, nourished by the Holy Spirit, evolving with the needs of God’s people, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy celebrate 175 years of consecrated life and service in the Diocese of Charleston.

The diocesan congregation, founded in 1829, is the living link with John England, the first bishop of Charleston. In the fall of 1829, while attending the First Provincial Council of American Bishops in Baltimore, Bishop England met four young women who were eager to serve the poor of his sprawling new diocese.

Mary and Honora O’Gorman, their 15-year-old niece Teresa Barry, and Mary Elizabeth Burke arrived in Charleston on Nov. 23, 1829, and immediately turned their energies to teaching and caring for orphans.

Bishop England patterned the new institute on the Sisters of Charity established in Emmitsburg, Md., and based its Rule on that of St. Vincent de Paul. As first stated, the principal object of the community was to honor our Lord Jesus Christ by the practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The sisters made annual simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, were subject to the bishop of Charleston, and wore the traditional black widow’s dress and cap of Mother Seton’s Sisters.

In a letter to his friend, Judge William Gaston of North Carolina, Bishop England wrote in February 1830: “The Sisters whom I am endeavoring to establish will not be a band of those at Emmitsburg nor dependent on them, as I do not wish to make my institutions depend upon Superiors over whom I have neither control or influence. Hence, I shall try what can, within the diocese, be done upon the same principle. I have four who cost me very little and do much service.”

At the time of Bishop England’s death in 1842, the community had 19 members who were conducting an orphanage, two schools for girls and a school for free black children. When yellow fever and cholera epidemics erupted, the teaching sisters became nursing sisters, caring for the sick in private homes and relief hospitals.

A constitution, written by Bishop England’s successor, the Most Rev. Ignatius A. Reynolds, guided the lives, prayer and work of the sisters for over 100 years.

In 1949, when the sisters adopted a new constitution, they changed the congregational name to the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy (OLMs). The insertion of the word “Charity” was intended to identify the congregation with other religious institutes based on the Rule of St. Vincent de Paul and its American adaptations.

One of the most important members of the community during the 19th century was Sister Teresa Barry. In 1844, she was elected Mother Superior and held that office off and on for a total of 39 years.

It was Mother Teresa who directed the community during the Civil War. Under her leadership, the sisters staffed a Confederate hospital in Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, Va. While Charleston was being bombarded, some of the sisters, together with orphans and boarders, were sent to Sumter, where they founded St. Joseph’s Academy. The remainder served in the prisons and hospitals in Charleston. When the war was over, a grateful U.S. Congress, impressed with the care afforded Union soldiers by the sisters, granted an appropriation of $12,000 to help rebuild the motherhouse and orphanage in Charleston.

For many years, Mother Teresa Barry hoped to establish a Catholic hospital in Charleston. She lived to see St. Francis Xavier Infirmary open its doors to the public on Oct. 1, 1882. One of her last official acts was the establishment of a nursing school. She died May 18, 1900. Teresa Barry is, for the OLMs, what a Mother Foundress is for other congregations of women religious.

The OLMs have always been a diocesan congregation. When Georgia and North Carolina were part of the diocese, sisters from Charleston served in Savannah and Wilmington. However, when those states became new dioceses, the local convents became independent of the Charleston motherhouse. The Sisters of Mercy in Savannah and in Belmont, N.C., continue to acknowledge their Charleston roots.

On the occasion of its centennial in 1929, the community numbered 86 professed sisters and four novices.

The Most Rev. Emmet Walsh, sixth bishop of Charleston, remarked: “The story of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy is a simple narrative of service to the sick and wounded, to the orphan and the prisoner, to the poor and distressed, in peace and war, in calamity and pestilence … It tells of missionaries who taught the negro and the white, slave and free in grammar schools and high schools, in city and country, in parish and mission …”

Over the next 65 years, as the needs of the diocese evolved, the sisters adapted broader roles in education and health care.

Concern for the children of the diocese has always been a principal responsibility of the OLMs. Regarding the care of orphans and education of children, the first constitution of the community cautions: “There cannot be a higher or more weighty obligation than that which rests upon the sisters to exert themselves to the utmost for the children entrusted to their care.”

For over 125 years the community cared for orphaned children at the site of their first motherhouse, 120 Queen Street, Charleston. When the property was sold in 1965, the diocese built a new facility called Charleston Home for Children, located at 1662 Ingram Road, west of the Ashley River. Under the direction of Catholic Charities, the sisters continued to staff the home until it was closed in 1990.

Responding to requests of the diocese, the community has provided teachers and administrators for parish schools throughout South Carolina. Under OLM leadership, both St. Angela Academy and St. Mary Help of Christians parochial school, Aiken, became accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. When, in 1915, Father Joseph L. O’Brien opened Bishop England High School in Charleston, three OLMs made up the teaching staff. Each year, more and more sisters were asked to teach at BEHS and parochial schools. In 1930, yielding to the growing need, the sisters closed their 100-year-old Academy of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston as well as St. Joseph’s Academy in Sumter.

Meanwhile, St. Francis Xavier Hospital was expanding. An outreach center was created in 1915. Providing home nursing care and social services for the poor, the facility became known as the Neighborhood House. Later, it developed a life of its own, apart from St. Francis Xavier Infirmary. The sisters added a clinic to the welfare center in the basement of Our Lady of Mercy Church. The OLMs continued to operate the center until Catholic Charities assumed the responsibility in 1964.

While St. Francis Hospital was growing, Bishop Walsh asked the sisters to establish a hospital in York. In 1938, from very humble beginnings in the Carroll family home, Divine Saviour Hospital and Nursing Home emerged. The parish of Divine Saviour, York, is unique in that it originated in this hospital.

From the 1930s through the 1950s many sisters served in the summer vacation camps sponsored by the Diocese of Charleston, offering religious education to Catholic children who did not attend parochial schools. Two schools, Camp St. Mary’s near Ridgeland and Camp St. Ann’s near Spartanburg, were staffed by OLMs, along with seminarians and lay counselors, until the early 1960s. During the academic year OLMs traveled the missions of South Carolina, teaching children in Sunday School and CCD programs.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the community accepted invitations from the bishops of Trenton and Camden, N.J., to open missions in their respective dioceses. Sisters taught religion in Hightstown, N.J., from 1947 until 1954, and staffed parish elementary schools in Gibbstown for 21 years and Middlesex for 30 years.

When the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, all religious communities entered a period of experimentation. They tried new ways of living, new styles of dress, and new forms of community government. During the next two decades, the OLMs prayerfully studied their traditions, their ministry and their future.

In 1976 the community established a Center for Spirituality on the motherhouse grounds on James Island. Its facilities may be reserved by religious and lay groups, Catholic and non-Catholic, for spiritual and educational programs. At the same time, the OLMs began an Associates Program which invites Catholic women to join with the community as far as possible, in prayer and ministry.

Day-to-day life has changed considerably in the 30 years since Vatican II. The sisters have created more collaborative governmental structures. Novices have studied with members of other religious communities in Internovitiate Programs in Kentucky, New Jersey and New York. Annual retreats may be held away from the community. Since the mid-1980s, OLMs who wish are free to wear a ring or pin instead of the veil as a sign of their congregational identification. In 1984 a new constitution, which incorporated many of the changes, was accepted and approved by the congregation and the bishop of Charleston.

At the same time, the community was grappling with the revolutionary changes occurring in the health care ministry, and the fact that fewer sisters were trained in the fields of nursing and hospital administration. In 1989, after prayerful deliberation, the OLMs relinquished sponsorship of their hospitals to the Bon Secours Sisters, thus continuing the Catholic presence at both facilities.

A year earlier, the sisters had reexamined their commitment of direct services to the poor and elderly. A proposal to establish an outreach program to serve Johns, James, and Wadmalaw Islands was accepted by the OLM Council. By the time final papers on the transfer of the hospitals were signed, earnest money had been placed on the property on Edenvale Road, Johns Island.

The mission of the Our Lady of Mercy Outreach quickly outgrew the small house and a new facility on Brownswood Road was dedicated on Nov. 15, 1992. In addition to a food bank and clothing distribution center, the Outreach provides educational programs and many other services including home repairs.

Today community members are involved in various ministries in the Diocese of Charleston. Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy are educating young people in Greenville, Aiken, Charleston and Mount Pleasant. They are involved in parish ministry in Summerville, Mauldin, Simpsonville and Mount Pleasant. OLMs serve the poor, elderly and Hispanic communities in and around Charleston. All of the sisters have been involved in the historic Synod of Charleston, serving on commissions, as delegates and by their prayers.

In their 175-year history, born of the concern Bishop John England had for his flock, guided by the hand of Providence, the OLMs have gracefully followed their objective to serve. Shakespeare said: “What’s past is prologue.” The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, celebrating this history, may wonder about their future. The Diocese of Charleston pauses to marvel at their past.