Women religious meet to discuss collaboration

MYRTLE BEACH — More than 70 women religious from around the Diocese of Charleston attended the Collaboration for Ministry Initiative’s fourth annual statewide seminar Nov. 6-8.

The conference’s theme was “Telling Our Stories — Transforming Our World,” and focused on helping the women learn how to tell the stories of their daily lives and develop perspectives on their service as women religious.

The three-day event’s facilitator was Sara Sanders, a member of the English faculty at Coastal Carolina University in Conway.

Organizers said the goal is to help the sisters and others involved with CMI use the skill of storytelling for communication, developing support networks, and discovering further opportunities for collaboration.

CMI is run by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina in conjunction with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio. It is designed to assist communities of women religious with their work and the challenges they face, including declining numbers and resources. Part of CMI’s goal is to help women religious discover ways to collaborate with each other and other members of the community to assure that the programs they have developed can continue.

Sanders led the group through focused exercises that involved writing short reflections on topics such as faith, family origins, the journey toward a vocation, and finding God’s presence in daily tasks and in other people.

She described storytelling as one of the main ways human beings learn, and said the act of sharing stories could help women religious  learn more about their own relationship with God and the work of their fellow sisters.

“When we come together to learn to see God, we hear with such richness, more than we ever hear when we’re alone,” Sanders said.

The women also prayed together and wrote reflections on how they felt Jesus communicated to them through their daily service. On Nov. 7 and 8, they read their reflections to one another.

Mark Small, a professor of psychology at the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University, gave a presentation Nov. 7 on the demographics of women religious in South Carolina.

Small cited data from surveys sent to women religious in the diocese earlier this year. He said current data shows that 130 sisters are serving in 27 counties in the state. He said the 130 sisters represent 26 different religious orders and 33 religious communities with motherhouses in 17 states.

South Carolina has 26 counties that are not being served in any capacity by women religious, he said.

Small said the survey revealed that the biggest challenge for women religious in rural areas is a feeling of isolation. Many of these areas have a small or at times nonexistent Catholic presence.

He said the results also show that many women religious work in several different capacities simultaneously because the need for their service does not match their numbers. Of those who responded to the survey, most said their primary charism was social service, followed by education, youth development, spiritual development and hospice and healthcare.

The survey noted that women religious around the diocese often join with local councils of churches, other specific churches and non-profit organizations in order to fulfill the needs of those they serve.

During the conference, Small gave a showing of “Crossroads,” a documentary about the history of women religious in South Carolina that aired on S.C. Educational Television during Easter and has since won several awards. He listened to suggestions about how the documentary might be used to make more people aware of the needs of women religious around the state and the need for vocations to the religious life.

“Giving these women an opportunity to interact with each other embodies what this whole initiative is about,” said Tom Keith, executive director of the Sisters of Charity Foundation. “I think this brought them to a different level of reflecting on the work they do. The energy and grace they bring to their work and to the gathering impacts all of us.”

Keith said the foundation has awarded about 30 grants totaling $650,000 to advance the work of women religious around the state since 2004. The grants support everything from programs for children and the elderly to multi-faceted outreach centers for the needy.

Kathy Csank, a consultant for CMI, said the annual conference provides an important learning opportunity for members of the foundation and the women religious.

“The important thing for us is to listen to the sisters, to listen for what their real needs are in their work and to focus on meeting those needs,” Csank said.