BEAUFORT — Sister Sheila Byrne of the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island celebrated the 50th anniversary of her profession as a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia on April 21 surrounded by family, colleagues and friends.
At the Golden Jubilee Mass held in her honor at St. Peter Church, Sister Sheila seemed humbled but honored by the recognition.
“Fifty years ago I made a promise to God that I would dedicate my life to him,” Sister Sheila told The Miscellany in an interview.
The festivities began the night before with a private family dinner. She said the Mass was the highlight of her jubilee day. She picked readings that have been meaningful on her journey as well as her favorite songs.
“It was truly a beautiful celebration,” she said.
After the Mass, she was whisked away in a van. She was in the front seat and very surprised when her family yelled out from the back, “Happy Golden Jubilee!” The van took her to a local marina, where she was transported by boat to make a grand entrance at the Beaufort Yacht and Sailing Club at a party held in her honor. Much of Sister Sheila’s family, including some from Ireland, was present for the festivities, which continued throughout the weekend.
Sister Sheila was born the seventh of nine children in County Cork, Ireland. She said she was raised with a strong obedience toward the will of God. In sixth grade she received encouragement from a nun whom she said perceived and fostered the seeds of a vocation. Sister Sheila moved to Philadelphia in her late teens and prepared for a career in education before taking vows. She has taught in schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina and worked as a director of religious education in Florida.
Sister Sheila met Sister Stella Breen, another native of Cork, in Morehead City, N.C. In 1987, the two sisters were asked if they would be willing to serve the needs of the poor. They did this by founding the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island.
When the Sisters first arrived in the Diocese of Charleston, Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler directed them to listen to the poor, be present for them and led by them, and that is what they have done.
“We are present for the needs that may arise every day,” said Sister Sheila.
The center serves people in need in northern Beaufort County through the work of the sisters, 110 volunteers and in collaboration with other local nonprofit agencies.
Some of the services the Franciscan Center offers include after-school literary programs, home visits, help with immigration problems and assistance to repair older homes for safety and accessibility. The center recently began a partnership with local pharmacies to help pay for essential prescriptions for the poor. Clothing, housewares and other necessities are provided to the migrant workers who come to St. Helena Island to harvest tomatoes in the spring. The Franciscan Center thrift store is open five days a week and is a large source of the center’s operating revenue.
Bill Meyers, of Mount Pleasant, said an estimated 450 people attended Sister Sheila’s jubilee celebration. He and his wife, Lynn, were volunteer coordinators with the Franciscan Center when they lived on Dataw Island. He said Sisters Sheila and Stella have both had an immense impact on the community in their 20 years at the center.
“It’s hard to talk about one and not the other,” he said. “They are wonderful. They are very caring for all people. Everybody who comes to the center feels at home there. It’s a peaceful place.”
Meyers said the Franciscan duo may not have known exactly what to do when they first arrived in Beaufort, but they did the right thing.
“They started out driving down the dirt roads and visiting people,” he said. “They are so well-loved because they respect people. They empower people and they are ecumenical.
“They are very much into the Franciscan way of life and are very humble. They are always smiling and always give you a big hug,” Meyer said.
After the jubilee and many more hugs, Sister Sheila said she was reminded of something St. Bonaventure once said: God’s love is like a fountain of fullness.
“That is what my weekend was like,” she said. “I felt love, appreciation and God blessing me for my faithfulness. It is an experience I will take with me to the end of my days.”
Deirdre C. Mays contributed to this story.