Conference focuses on the ministry of women religious

By Tim Bullard

MYRTLE BEACH — More than 80 of South Carolina’s women religious met to exchange ideas at the statewide “Conference for Women Religious: Collaboration for Ministry”  Feb. 3-5.

The event was sponsored by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and the St. Ann Foundation of Cleveland.

“This is part of a process in which we are bringing together religious working in South Carolina in some ministry form,” said  Thomas C. Keith, executive director of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. “It can be in a school, in a homeless shelter, food bank or whatever. Many of their congregational leaders are joining them at this conference.”

Keith said that both foundations have taken on the sustainability of the women religious ministry as an initiative.

“We believe that bringing the women together for this weekend meeting will offer them an opportunity to engage in reflection about where they have been, where they are today and more importantly, where they want to go in their future ministries here in South Carolina,” he said.

The foundations are under the umbrella of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, an order of nuns based in Cleveland, Ohio, who have ministries in South Carolina. The conference initiative is a spin-off of an Ohio program that has also branched out into Kentucky and Tennessee.

Kathryn Csank, program director for the Collaboration for Ministry Initiative of the St. Ann Foundation, said the gathering was a result of  research performed by both foundations and the realization that the numbers of nuns are dwindling.

“Sisters are aging, and there are not lots of young sisters behind them to pick up on this work,” she said. “We knew that the sisters were concerned about that.”

Sister Miriam Erb, congregational leader of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, confirmed that. “We as a congregation are deeply committed to strengthening and sustaining the ministries of women religious which make an impact in the lives of the underserved,” she said.

Keith said that the Sisters of Charity Foundation awards about $3.5 million a year to help alleviate poverty in South Carolina.” The grants that the foundation provides affect people at various stages of their lives, from pre-school and after-school programs to fatherhood initiatives to programs for the elderly.

“We are interested in health access as an organization as well,” Keith said. “With the change in welfare reform back in the 1990s, a lot of services are not available. Government is not as involved, and there is a tremendous need for job training, for education.”

“Newspaper articles and other kinds of communication help with the work that the sisters do among the poor,” Csank said. “[People] might want to come on board in some way, volunteer in some way, help with fund raising, be part of that effort, but if they don’t know, there’s not that opportunity.

“There are an awful lot of wonderful people who would be of help, they just need to know how that can happen,” she said.

The group meeting was Women Religious in South Carolina. Jean Alvarez and Nancy Conway, CSJ, of Organizational Leadership Inc., were facilitators for the conference.

Franciscan Sister of Mary Sandy Schwartz said, “It’s a wonderful opportunity to gather with the other women religious in the state and to begin to talk about the ministry needs of our people here and how can we meet them and sustain them for the long haul.”

“I’m beginning my fourth year as a nurse,” said the nun, who ministers at Mercy Hospice in Myrtle Beach. “It is a privilege to walk this journey with people. We enter patients’ lives at a very vulnerable time, so it is a sacred trust that they allow us into their lives to accompany them for as long as we can, for as far as we can. This is not just a job. This is a ministry, and I think I can speak for all my colleagues at Mercy Hospice, even though it is not a Catholic agency. It’s non-denominational.”

Sister Cheryl Keehner, a Sister of Charity from Cleveland, said that she was a member of the General Counsel for her community, and that her interest and concern is mission for the community.

“I make sure the sisters have jobs and are happy in their ministries,” she said. “I visit the various places where they are employed to make sure things are going smoothly for them. I also help sisters who are moving into retirement or pre-retirement.

“This is an important part of planning for the future of ministry as sisters move in and out of various ministry positions and as they move toward retirement,” Sister Keehner said. “We need to look for the next generation and carry on the ministry here in South Carolina.”

 Franciscan Sister Noreen Buttimer of the Church of the Nativity in Charleston said that her primary ministry is working with people who want to become Catholic through the RCIA process. She has other ministries, too.

“I do outreach,” Sister Buttimer said. “I do shut-ins. I do liturgical ministries. I do whatever has to be done.”

Sister Mary Carroll Eby, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, works at St. Cyprian Church and Outreach Center in Georgetown. She said, “We provide people with clothing and some food and help them pay their utility bills and rent bills. We help them get their medications and prescriptions filled and their special needs that they might have that don’t fit into those broad categories.”

“I would say that the seminar is a success because there is such an overwhelming response by the women religious, and people are really upbeat and positive,” said Dominican Sister Pat Keating, regional coordinator for the coastal region of Catholic Charities. “I think the work of the ministries can continue if we sit down and figure out ways to do it together.”

She works directly with the poor at the Neighborhood House in Charles-ton, where more than 125 people receive meals five days a week.

“That’s the wonderful thing about Neighborhood House. For an hour out of every day in the winter people can come in and sit down and take their time and eat lunch and get a chance to talk to other people, and in the summertime they can cool off. That’s only an hour a day,” she said.

There are more poor on the streets in Charleston, “many more,” this year than last year.

Her office receives money from the Good Cheer Fund, a Charleston Post and Courier fund-raising effort each Christmas. With these funds, they were able to help more than 300 people keep their utilities on this winter.

Sister Mary Gallagher, a Sister of Mercy, has converted a bank for her ministry in Hardeeville.

“We now have a bilingual Mass. We have an English Mass on Saturday nights. The church seats about 187. We have every chair filled.”

Sister Lupe Stump, a Sister of Mercy, works with her. “We are going to be building 178 houses in an area that is being called ‘Two Sisters of Hardeeville.’ ”

Felician Sister Susanne Dziedzic is in Kingstree at St. Ann Outreach Center. The center received a grant for a literacy-through-arts program, and the schools have donated a portable classroom for $1 a year for an arts center.

Gov. Mark Sanford was in town for a statewide tourism conference during the meeting of women religious, and spoke of the Sisters of Charity and their work.

“… They consistently make a difference in people’s lives, not only in the spiritual but frankly in the physical, in the here-and-now, because at the end of the day you have got to have both, at least in this world. I would simply say ‘thank you’ because they really make a difference in people’s lives.”