Priest’s retirement marks the end of an order in S.C.

RIDGELAND — Father Michael Hussey’s 13 years as pastor at St. Anthony Church in Ridgeland will end on June 1. As Father Hussey begins his retirement, it will also be the end of more than 70 years of service in the Diocese of Charleston by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  
When he arrived in the small Jasper County town of Ridgeland in January 1995, Father Hussey, OMI, started in a parish that serves about 200 households today.  
Before coming to South Carolina,  he worked in hospitals and hospices, preached at retreats and served as a penitentiary chaplain. Just prior to coming to the Charleston diocese, he was director of pastoral care at a hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla.  
Father Hussey said he was excited when he came to Ridgeland because it was a new assignment and his first time working in South Carolina. The warm reception he received from  parishioners was, he said, the beginning of 13 years of spiritual growth and learning, joy and friendships.
“Being here was an absolutely unbelievable experience — the people here were just amazing,” Father Hussey said. “When I came here, I told the parishioners, ‘Folks, you got yourself a 60-year-old rookie,’ because I had never worked in a parish setting before. They just pitched right in and worked with me. When we had big things going on, like fund-raising campaigns. They kicked right in and did what needed to be done.”  
Father Hussey’s duties included saying weekly Masses at both St. Anthony and its mission church, St. Mary Mission, which is 36 miles away in Hampton and serves about 48 households.  
Over the years, he also helped at St. Mary Mission in Allendale and St. Anthony Mission in Hardeeville. He worked with Sisters Guadalupe Stump and Mary Gallagher, of Sisters of Mercy of Americas, to help the poor and the growing Hispanic population in Hardeeville.  
He said all the churches have one thing in common: They all serve small, tight communities of Catholics in parts of the state where Catholics have traditionally been very much in the minority.  
Shortly after he arrived, his experience in prison ministry was put to use as he visited inmates at state correctional facilities in Allendale and Ridgeland, and the federal correctional institute in Estill.  
“For a short period of time, I was helping out at four parishes and three prisons — it sometimes made for a round trip weekend of 245 miles,” he said. “For a while, I was the only priest in three counties.”  
Since 2003, he has focused his work on parishes in Hampton and Ridgeland, and the prison in Ridgeland.  
Father Hussey is a native of Chicago and was ordained to the priesthood in 1960. He said he chose the Missionary Oblates because of the diverse opportunities available to their  priests.  
“I just enjoy their variety — when I was looking at this community I realized there was not too much we didn’t do,” he said. “I liked the whole smorgasbord approach and that’s what I ended up doing.”
He served around the Midwest for many years until, while working as a health care chaplain in Minnesota, he decided to move to a warmer climate.  
“What sealed it was in 1984, I had a call to go out on Christmas Eve and the actual temperature was minus 63. Not the wind chill, the actual temperature,” he said. “That winter we also had 34 days where it never got above zero, and I started thinking that somebody somewhere else must need me.”  
The Florida job soon followed.  
In 1995, St. Anthony was led by the late Father Russ Nickerson, OMI, who was called to work in Florida because he spoke fluent Spanish. Father Hussey saw a blurb about the vacancy in Ridgeland and decided it was time to give parish work a try. He said he thought he could help the growing Hispanic population in the Jasper County area because he spoke and understood some Spanish.  
St. Anthony today serves a mix of long-time locals, Hispanics, and retirees who have recently moved into the area. He said many older parishioners and visitors come from Sun City, a nearby retirement complex.
Classes at St. Anthony include English as a second language, Scripture for adults, and home-based study programs for children.  
Father Hussey said he has been inspired and amazed by the tenacious faith of South Carolina Catholics.  
“The people here in the Diocese of Charleston are just amazing, especially when you hear their stories about how it wasn’t too long ago they were afraid to admit they were Catholic in parts of this state,” Father Hussey said. “There were some people who were threatened because they were Catholic, and others who struggled, who relied on circuit rider priests for years when priests weren’t available. They just hung in there.”  
He said long-time parishioners at St. Anthony are fiercely proud of their church, which was partially financed by a wealthy Pennsylvania resort owner who liked to stop in the area for Mass on his way to Florida. The church opened in 1963 along what was then a main route, and is still close to bustling I-95.  
“We get a lot of jokes about our little ‘Burma Shave’ signs because of all these signs we have along the road near here saying where Catholic Mass is held,” he said, referring to the iconic highway signs that dotted American roads from the 1920s through 1960s.  
Father Hussey will live at an Oblate residence in Belleville, Ill., and hopes to come back to the diocese to assist parishes without permanent priest or where a priest is ill or on sabbatical. He especially hopes to return to the Lowcountry and the people he has come to love, he said.  
Father Hussey’s love for the diocese is not unusual, said Father Richard Sudlik, OMI, who served for several years in Florence and now is provincial councilor for the East Coast.  
Sudlik said South Carolina has been a popular destination among Oblate priests since 1938, when they started a series of missions in the black Catholic community here and in other parts of the Southeast.
Sudlik said the Oblates served at parishes and schools in Florence and Sumter until the mid-‘90s, and the order would probably continue on in the Diocese of Charleston if not for personnel shortages and budget concerns.  
“Every Oblate who has been in South Carolina loved it there,” Sudlik said.