NORTH CHARLESTON – Volunteers at Echo House are rewarded with joy.
They hear songs and prayer from the senior citizens they serve, and are witnesses to spontaneous praise for what other people take for granted. Where else can one hear the heartfelt prayer, “Thank you, Lord, for letting us wake up in our right minds this morning”? A visit to Echo House will put anyone in the right frame of mind.
Echo House has a generous history in the Diocese of Charleston. It is located in the Windsor Place neighborhood of North Charleston and is run by Sister Colleen Waterman, a Franciscan Sister of the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes, based in Rochester, Minn.
In an interview with The Miscellany, Sister Colleen described Echo House as a place that meets the needs of the community. Senior citizens can go there for meals, fellowship and crafts, and people in need can find assistance.
Echo House was founded in 1966 after Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler read an article in Catholic Extension magazine about an inner-city program for children. The creative-education program was initiated by the late Sister Maigread Conway, a school principal in Minnesota, for the Cabrini-Green public housing section of Chicago. It was a summer course that helped children reach the educational requirements they needed to continue on to the appropriate grade level in the fall.
Bishop Unterkoefler wanted to bring a similar program to Charleston, so he contacted the Franciscans and invited Sister Maigread to visit. This was in the days before children were mandated to attend school, Sister Colleen said. With the support of Msgr. Thomas Duffy and Catholic Charities, Sister Maigread offered the summer program called SAIL (Summer Achievement in Learning). In the fall, she returned to western Minnesota but came back again in 1967 to stay.
While she was in Minnesota, Bishop Unterkoefler found the first site for the new program in the Union Heights neighborhood on Echo Avenue. He discovered it by accident one day while on the way to the airport. His driver got lost, and the two men ended up in Union Heights.
As Sister Colleen tells it, the bishop asked his driver where they were and the driver replied that he didn’t know. The bishop announced, “This is where I want the sisters to work.” The outreach was later dubbed “The Echo House” by children who attended the programs.
Before coming to Charleston, Sister Colleen was a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minn. She had some public health experience working with multi-ethnic people in inner-city Milwaukee. She had requested to work in public health nursing but since that work was not available to religious at the time, the order transferred her to Charleston to help Sister Maigread in the fledgling ministry. They tutored children and offered adult education and sewing classes.
Soon the bishop asked the sisters to take on the Neighborhood House outreach on the peninsula because the Sisters of Charity could no longer staff it. Father Duffy was assigned to Our Lady of Mercy Church, located upstairs over Neighborhood House, so the sisters were immediately put to parish work by the priest. It was the beginning of a long and inspirational friendship.
At one point, the parish consisted of a neighborhood family, Father Duffy, his sister Ann Mitchum and her family, and three Franciscan nuns.
“The neighborhood kids came to tutoring and then went upstairs to prepare for Baptism,” Sister Colleen said. “I played a little organ at the time but it wasn’t the right music for the kids so I learned how to play the guitar.”
Their primary responsibility, however, was home visitation.
“We met the needs of the people whatever they were,” she said.
Those needs included medical care, dental care, food stamps and Social Security. Children needed education, families needed clothes. They created programs, found volunteers and worked with anyone they could. Father Duffy even built a double garage at the rectory and turned it into a clothing center.
“We just moved with everything,” Sister Colleen said.
When they started tutoring children the sisters found out they weren’t getting free lunches at school because the parents couldn’t sign the permission slips. So they started a basic adult education program. The nuns became literacy tutors and trainers, eventually helping to form the Trident Literacy Association. But there was always something more to do.
“We had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and taught the illiterate but we haven’t been to prison,” Sister Colleen said.
They got involved in Kairos at the women’s correctional center in Columbia. They invited the seniors from Echo House, Neighborhood House and Our Lady of Mercy to be part of the prayer and cookie Kairos ministry.
Sister Colleen said she hopes all of the work has been a representation of Christ to people in the community.
“I find the majority of the people we work with have a strong faith,” she said. “They speak an awful lot to me of Christ and it’s easy to see Christ in them, so hopefully it works both ways. They probably bring more to me than I give to them.”
Throughout the years, 176 Franciscan sisters have lived or worked in Charleston with SAIL, Echo House and Neighborhood House. Eight centers were operating at one time; one of those was in the former Immaculate Conception school building.
Inez Singleton first volunteered with Echo House 40 years ago, thanks to her then-9-year-old son.
“We lived across the street and he dragged me over and said ‘Why don’t you volunteer?'” she said. “I needed to work at the time. I had lost my husband in the Army to colon cancer and had five children to support. I was a tailor and seamstress and was able to teach sewing in the SAIL program and at Neighborhood House and Echo House.”
Today, as an employee, she helps with the day-to-day operation of the outreach, and she still teaches sewing classes.
“I couldn’t get along without her,” Sister Colleen said.
In the beginning, Echo House was funded by donations, then through the Diocesan Development Fund and now Catholic Charities. The funding takes care of the operations, but donations are used solely to provide assistance to people in need in the form of food vouchers, utilities, or medications.
Sister Maigread died in 1999 and Father Duffy in 2004. Sister Colleen took over the duties for Echo House with a heavy but accepting heart.
“Sister Maigread and I were a wonderful team,” she said. “I was very privileged to have worked with her. I have learned so much, but I didn’t want to be in charge. But I am happy to do what the Lord wants me to do.”
She misses them, still. They were her family. “I guess the good Lord is trying to tell me he’s all I need,” she said.
Distractions are always around the corner, whether it’s keeping the programs running or the house standing. Squirrels have chewed the electrical wires, gas leaks were found in pipes, and the building, now located at 1911 Hackermann Ave., is constantly in need of updates or repair. She has volunteers who provide food and cooking for senior citizens, but no one to accept this legacy.
“I would hope that it would still remain a center sensitive to the needs of the people in that area, whatever that may be, because the needs always change,” she said. “Right now it’s pretty much seniors, but we could do many more programs if we had more personnel.”
She has not slowed her pace, however. Planned development of a large State Ports Authority terminal in the area would have meant building access roads over neighborhood property, including that of Echo House. Sister Colleen wrote letters protesting the plan that people in the area signed and sent to the Amy Corps of Engineers.
“They have changed the proposal; I don’t know why, but I’m grateful,” she said. “I think the Holy Spirit must have gotten to someone.”
The Lord often figures in Sister Colleen’s life whatever it is.
“The future is not my worry really,” she said. “I’ve done what the good Lord has asked me to do. When I do get worried I tell myself ‘This is your work, Lord, and you’re going to have to help me. It’s not my work.’ “
Sister Colleen will be 72 on May 31. When asked if she planned to retire, she said, “When the Holy Spirit tells me. I will work as long as I am physically able.”
Brooksi Hudson contributed to this story.