CHARLESTON — Echo House packed a lot of people and momentous occasions into its annual Christmas party Dec. 18.
Not only was it the 40th anniversary of the social outreach program run by Franciscan Sister Colleen Waterman for the Diocese of Charleston, it also was a tribute to Inez Singleton, who has been with the outreach since its inception.
As the little house filled with people and the aroma of good food, volunteers busily served coffee and tea to the senior citizens, paying special attention to Mrs. Singleton, who sat at a table surrounded by friends and well-wishers.
Until recently, Mrs. Singleton — which is how she is known to everyone at Echo House — would have been one of those volunteers bustling about taking care of everyone else. But the 86-year-old recently suffered a stroke and is undergoing rehabilitation.
Rosa Lee Benekin, who has been a member of Echo House for many years, called Singleton blessed and said it is time for others to take care of her.
“Mrs. Singleton is an excellent teacher,” Benekin said. “She’s an excellent worker. I don’t even drink no coffee at home, because I know when I get here, she’s going to have everything ready.”
But now it’s up to others to have things ready, and Sister Colleen said she has struggled without her friend and assistant to help.
Her struggles paid off as evidenced by the smiling faces of Echo House members.
Once everyone arrived, Sister Colleen stood in the middle of the room to welcome the crowd of about 50 people.
“This is the 40th anniversary of Echo House, but more importantly, I may cry,” she said as her voice choked with tears. “It is Mrs. Singleton’s 41 years of being with us.”
Singleton worked first with Neighborhood House and then moved to Echo House when it was established in 1966 by the late Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler. The widowed mother taught sewing to support her family and worked with the Summer Achievement in Learning program.
The long-time volunteer was surprised by the tribute.
“I am so excited, I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I am so happy to be able to be out here.”
Singleton seemed especially moved by a letter from Bishop Robert J. Baker, formerly of the Diocese of Charleston and now serving the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala.
“God bless you for your many years of service to God’s poor … and in sharing your presence and wisdom to so many people in your kind, patient and compassionate way,” Bishop Baker wrote.
Sister Colleen said they missed the bishop, who usually played piano and sang with the senior citizens. This year, the Air Force Base Catholic and Protestant Choir sang the Christmas carols.
As the senior citizens listened to the songs, some sang along while others chatted among themselves.
Sister Colleen said one of the highlights of Echo House’s history was a visit from Mother Teresa, who once shared a meal with senior citizens there.
Samuel Holmes, who makes crucifixes for everyone affiliated with Echo House, said he grew up with Singleton and recalled Sister Colleen as “a little kid with black hair.”
Now, he said, “she’s our own Mother Teresa.”
Other people echoed those sentiments, praising the warmth of the volunteers and the welcoming atmosphere.
“I enjoy coming here for the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in Christ,” said Inez Frazier, who has attended the gatherings for about a year.
Another speaker at the Christmas celebration was Mark Dickson, director of administration at St. Francis Hospital and former director of Catholic Charities, which oversees Echo House.
“We think about all the people before us at this time of year who have gone on to the afterlife. It’s a joyous way we think about them and vow to carry on their work,” he said.
Sister Colleen, who laughingly refers to herself as a senior citizen serving other senior citizens, will continue to do the good work of Echo House, but she said it will be a more difficult job without Mrs. Singleton.