Our Lady of Mercy sisters follow mission path through history

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a series on religious orders serving in the Diocese of Charleston.

The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy were formally established in the Diocese of Charleston in 1829 by the first bishop of Charleston, John England.

Bishop England was attending the first Provincial Council of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Md., when he met Mary and Honora O’Gorman, their 15-year-old niece Teresa Barry and Mary Elizabeth Burke.

The O’Gorman sisters and Barry were from Cork, Ireland, Bishop England’s native city. In their meeting, these four women expressed their willingness to form a religious community under his direction, and what would initially be known as The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy was born.

In 1949, the congregation adopted an updated constitution and changed the name to The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. The word “charity” was inserted to identify the congregation with similar religious institutes, such as the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md.

Bishop England noted in his writings that he modeled the OLM sisters after the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, who were established by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809. Mother Seton was the first person born in the United States to become a canonized saint.

Leading the way
Bishop England spoke often about creating a constitution for “his sisters,” but the completion of that task fell to Bishop Ignatius Reynolds, the second bishop of Charleston.

His constitution of 1844 enabled the sisters to elect their own officers, and Sister Teresa was chosen as Mother Superior.

“What a Mother Foundress is to other religious communities, Teresa Barry has become for the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy,” said Sister Anne Francis Campbell, the order’s archivist.

Mother Teresa led the community for a total of 39 years, including the horrific years when Americans fought each other on the battlefield.

The Civil War
When the Civil War began in 1861, the OLM sisters were deeply involved in the ministries of education, health care and social service. They were in charge of the operation of two schools and an orphanage in Charleston, and devoted themselves to caring for victims of epidemics in Charleston, Augusta, Ga., and Wilmington, N.C.

The war brought chaos. The city was under constant bombardment. Some of the sisters took the orphans and students under their care and fled inland to Sumter, where they established St. Joseph’s Academy in 1863 and continued its operation until 1929.

The rest of the sisters remained behind to care for soldiers on both sides of the war. They visited the men in hospitals and prisons and taught whenever they could. Also, under the direction of Mother Teresa, the sisters staffed a Confederate hospital in Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, Va.

After the war, thanks to the sisters’ dedication to the soldiers, the U.S. Congress granted $12,000 to help rebuild the motherhouse and orphanage, and allow the sisters to resume their pre-war ministries.

The bombed-out property was located on Queen Street. While it was being repaired, the sisters purchased the Russell House, one of the most famous historical homes in Charleston, known for its spiral staircase.

The motherhouse
Our Lady of Mercy motherhouse was located on Queen Street until 1901, when the city took over governance of the orphanage. The sisters resided at Russell House until 1908, then moved to 68 Legare Street until 1958.

Msgr. James May led a fund-raiser to help the sisters purchase property on James Island and build a new motherhouse, which was dedicated in 1959 and named May Forest.

 The single-story structure sits at the rear of 23 acres of woodland and overlooks the Charleston harbor.

A wing is dedicated to the older religious who need assistance. Currently, 22 active and retired sisters live at the motherhouse.

Living their charism
As a diocesan congregation serving South Carolina, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy are a smaller order and have never had more than 100 members at once. But they have proven it doesn’t take a lot of members to accomplish many things.

After the Civil War, one of Mother Teresa’s primary objectives was to establish a hospital. St. Francis Xavier Infirmary opened in Charleston in 1882, followed by a school for nurses in 1900. The nursing school was one of Mother Teresa’s final acts. She died May 18, 1900.

St. Francis hospital was so successful that Bishop Emmet Walsh asked the community to do the same thing in a poor, rural area of the state that was mostly non-Catholic. The order opened Divine Savior Hospital in York in 1938, which gradually broke down prejudice against Catholics in the area. Divine Savior parish was created in the hospital chapel that same year. In 1961 a nursing home was added.

As the years passed, running hospitals became less of a ministry and more of a business, and in 1989 the OLMs transferred control of both hospitals to Bon Secours Health System.

The general chapter of the order decided it was time for the congregation to return to its roots.

The needs of society
In 1989, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy established a small outreach facility on Johns Island to help the poor and elderly. The timing was providential as Hurricane Hugo slammed the coast and the outreach was flooded with clients.

There were too many people in need for the small facility, but again, God was there. The sisters used funds from the hospital transfer to build and endow a larger compound with a wide scope of programs for residents of Johns, James and Wadmalaw islands.

Of course, this was not the first social outreach established by the order. In 1915, Neighborhood House was created as an offshoot of St. Francis Hospital. It provided nursing care and other assistance to European immigrants living on the east side. It is still in operation today serving primarily African-American families.

The sisters also played a large role in the field of education during the 20th century. They operated St. Angela Academy in Aiken, staffed parochial schools and served in the summer religious education camps sponsored by the diocese.

Into the future
As the order approaches its 179th anniversary, they still have sisters in senior ministry and other services, but their primary focus is Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach on Johns Island.

When Bishop England first established the order, he said he wanted the sisters to have a stable environment centered on community life and prayer, and witness to the Gospel through teaching and caring for the sick. Whatever else has changed over the years, this core principal has not.

“The three ministries we’ve had from the beginning are continued in different settings as time passes,” Sister Anne Francis said.

All three ministries of education, health care and social service are encompassed in the Johns Island outreach. OLM Mother Superior Sister Bridget Sullivan said they do not have plans for anything else at this point.

“My hope is that we will be a hopeful, joyful community that will continue to serve the diocese,” Sister Bridget said.