Ursuline Sisters celebrate 150 years service in Columbia area

COLUMBIA — The Ursuline Sisters of Louisville celebrated 150 years of doing God’s work in Columbia at a special Mass and reception held April 13 at Cardinal Newman School.  
More than 175 people attended the event, including current and former students of the Ursulines, former co-workers, and parishioners who were touched by their presence in the Midlands. The crowd included students of the former Ursuline High and Catholic High schools.  
Ursuline sisters first came to Columbia in 1858 and ran a school for girls and an orphanage out of an old hotel downtown. The Ursuline Sisters of Columbia merged with the Louisville sisters in 1938. They have taught in several area Catholic schools in recent years, including St. Peter, St. John Neumann, St. Joseph and Cardinal Newman. Three sisters still serve in Columbia.  
Sister Jean Anne Zappa, OSU, mother superior of the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, attended and spoke during the Mass.  
“Because of our faithful and loving God this has been, is and will continue to be an amazing journey for the Ursuline Sisters as we celebrate our jubilee of 150 years in Louisville and the 150 years of Ursuline presence in Columbia,” she said. “The presence of the Ursulines in the local church has indeed been a blessing for all. We stand in awe of what has been, we celebrate what is, and with the same courage, daring spirit, grace and trust of our foremothers we go forward on this amazing journey always knowing the fidelity of God.”  
Msgr. Leigh A. Lehocky, pastor of St. Peter Church in Columbia, was taught by the Ursulines during his childhood.
After Mass, he related one of the most vivid anecdotes about the sisters’ history there. He described how the mother superior sent a special message to Gen. William T. Sherman ahead of his arrival in Columbia in 1865, begging him not to damage the convent, school and orphanage. Sherman apparently agreed to protect the Ursulines’ property because Ursulines in the north were teaching one of his relatives.  
The Columbia fire blazed out of control, however, and both the convent and orphanage burned to the ground, forcing the sisters and students to take refuge in a cemetery.  
“The mother superior gave Sherman a piece of her mind in the morning, and he ended up getting them a place where they could continue on with their work,” Msgr. Lehocky said. “That’s the sort of steel you women have brought to Columbia and to the state of South Carolina.”  
The Mass was celebrated by Msgr. Mauricio West, a 1970 graduate of Cardinal Newman who is now vicar general for the Diocese of Charlotte. Father West recalled his days as a student of the Ursuline sisters, and praised their dedicated work in and out of the classroom.
“We give thanks as we recall and celebrate your great contribution in this area of the Lord’s vineyard,” he said. “As you continue to take the example of the Good Shepherd for your daily lives, please continue to pass onto us the wonderful possibilities of a relationship with God.”  
At a reception after the Mass, the sisters mingled with current and former students, friends and family members. Displays documented the history of Columbia’s Catholic schools and the sisters who taught in them, and included historical photographs, old yearbooks and newspaper articles.  
Shelby Deborde, a parishioner at St. John Neumann in Columbia, and his wife Mary Alma, echoed the gratitude many people expressed for the sisters’ work. Both recalled their days as Catholic school students, and he  described how Sister Anthony Wargel befriended his mother as she dealt with illness during her last years.  
“She was my mother’s best friend, she was always with her,” he said. “Sister Anthony is a special lady.”
“We respected the sisters like all get out. There was no nonsense in their classes,” Mrs. Deborde said. “But they also taught us so much more — respect for others and manners. The Ursulines meant everything to us as students.”  
Sister Anthony, who is 93, smiled and talked with the Debordes and a steady stream of former students who gathered around her. She said the celebration was a rare chance for the sisters to reconnect with people they’ve touched, and for her to recall the 22 years she spent as a teacher in Columbia.  
“It’s awesome, breathtaking,” she said. “I really can’t express myself on how it feels to be here. I feel like I’m back home.”