Dominicans work in the heart of the Edisto Indians

RIDGEVILLE — For 32 years, two Adrian Dominican sisters have reached out to a Native American community in rural Dorchester County.  

Sisters Mary Lequier and Carol Dulka live in a small house off S.C. Highway 61 in the town of Ridgeville. It is in the heart of the Edisto Indian community, where they work with the Edisto Indian Organization to serve the Native American population, which is estimated at about 1,000.  

The Edisto are members of the Casabo family of tribes. Their original, traditional tribal areas were located near the Edisto river in Charleston and Colleton counties.  

Many of the Edisto located in Ridgeville have been living on the Dorchester County land since the late 19th century.  

The sisters have worked with the tribe since the late 1970s in all facets of their lives, whether it’s helping young people obtain an education, learn about their heritage or avoid substance abuse; or providing food and care for needy, elderly people who have no other family.

Over the next several months, however, the sisters will start a new chapter in their lives as they take over full-time work as directors at the Sea of Peace House of Prayer on Edisto Island. In the meantime, they are slowly turning over much of their work to people in the Ridgeville community so they can continue to care for the Edisto tribe.

The sisters currently help maintain two feeding centers for elderly Edisto Indians — one in Ridgeville and another in downtown Cottageville. They travel to a food bank in Charleston County once a week to pick up food for both sites, and help plan menus with the women who cook.

Some of the meals are served directly from the Edisto community center in Ridgeville, while others are driven to the elderly and homebound by volunteers.  

“We’re basically helping out with making up the menus and getting the food,” Sister Carol said. “We’re turning that work over little by little to others, helping the people to understand what they need to do and where they need to go.”

The Dominican sisters also helped to start a large vegetable garden. The produce is used by people in the community and for the meals the sisters take to the needy.  

“People take care of it all the time. This summer they harvested and then tilled grass and weeds back into the earth to make the soil better,” she said. “The late summer vegetables are next: cabbage, mustard and collard greens.”

The senior center in Ridgeville serves as a social hub for many of the Edisto tribe members. Volunteers from the community gather there a few days a week to prepare meals for the elderly and do other tasks.  

The facility was closed during much of this summer because a new stove and linoleum had to be installed. Sister Carol said a group of young volunteers from a church summer camp in the area came to make crafts with the local children and ended up staining the old floor. The center will open again for regular hours in September.  

The Dominicans have worked closely with Roy Muckelvaney, a member of the tribal council who expressed interest in helping to carry on the sisters’ legacy once they move full time to Edisto Island. They anticipate leaving the outreach permanently by June 2009.

Sister Carol said their programs not only serve Native Americans, but other needy people in the area. They work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. John the Beloved Church in Summerville to secure funds and donations used to sustain the feeding program.  

The stagnant national economy has caused the number of people needing food in the area to increase, but the sisters said many things in Ridgeville have improved since they first arrived.

“Many of the facilities in the area have improved 100 percent,” Sister Carol said. “When we moved here, many of the houses didn’t have running water, but over the years they’ve upgraded and most of the houses now have septic tanks and facilities.”

Both sisters said more local children have completed school and many parents who dropped out of high school have returned for adult study as they realize the true importance of a high school education.

The Edisto population in Ridgeville has increased in recent years as people who moved out during their young adulthood move back to the area to raise families. The number of children served by outreach workers also is increasing.

Over the years, the sisters worked on the Cultural Festival Committee, which helps organize the Edistos’ appearances at area powwows and Native American festivals.  

Sister Carol said their service has been a good way to help the rural people learn more about the Catholic faith. Most of the people in the Ridgeville area are Protestant, and many members of the Edisto tribe belong to the Pentecostal Holiness faith.  

“There are so few Catholics in the area that people out there need to rub elbows with us, so they realize Catholics are just like them,” she said.  

Sister Mary said the change will be difficult but exciting at the same time.  

“We’re always excited about the new challenge, but at the same time we’re leaving people who have become like family to us,” she said. “We’re sort of like kin with the people in Ridgeville, and there will always be some part of us missing the people out here.”