Editor’s Note: This is the third profile in a series on religious orders serving in the Diocese of Charleston.
The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are an international congregation based in Belgium, which is where the general motherhouse is located.
They have a large presence in Rwanda, Congo, Cameroon and Brazil, and missionary sisters in the Dominican Republic. They also have provinces in England, Canada, Texas and the Eastern United States, which includes Western New York, Connecticut, Georgia and South Carolina.
Sister Caroline Smith, the provincial superior of the eastern province, said the congregation has served in South Carolina for over 50 years.
“I love the people and the church here,” she said.
In the beginning
Dom Nicholas, born Joseph Minsart, and Mother Claire of Jesus both are credited with playing a significant part in founding the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.
Dom Minsart was born in 1769 in Belgium. He entered the Abbey of Boneffe at age 22 to live the contemplative life of the monks of St. Bernard. But the abbey was pillaged by the Revolutionary Government of France and all the monks were dispersed.
In the ensuing years, Dom Minsart spent time in prison for his religious beliefs, then as a diocesan and parish priest in Namur, Belgium. His devotion to the underprivileged has been compared to St. Vincent de Paul.
To help working families, he opened a sewing shop in 1819 with two young women. It was a place where poor children came to learn a trade and be catechized. Dom Minsart guided this band of young girls, who came to be known as the Sisters of St. Mary, until his death in 1837.
Mother Claire of Jesus, born Rosalie Niset in 1811, joined the Sisters of St. Mary in 1831. In 1835 at the age of 24 she became leader of the community and guided the fledgling congregation for 36 years.
When she died in 1871, she left behind a group of sisters busy establishing schools for the poor throughout Belgium and reaching out as missionaries to the children of Catholic immigrants in Lockport, N.Y.
The general motherhouse is in Namur, Belgium, which serves as home to General Superior Sister Rejeanne Roussel, who oversees all the provinces. Sister Maureen Quinn, who served in Kingstree, S.C., is first counselor.
When the congregation came to America in the late 1800s, they started in New York where huge waves of immigrants landed each day.
Eventually, a provincial motherhouse was built, and it served as a Catholic high school and a convent where novices entered, Sister Caroline said.
The order sold it in 1994 when the building became too large to maintain. The sisters decided to commit themselves to Buffalo, N.Y., and built a small complex on the west side at St. Mary Center, next to their infirmary and the Annunciation Convent, founded in 1887. The new motherhouse contains administrative offices, a gathering space and a chapel.
Sister Caroline said the former motherhouse was converted into low-income apartments, which delighted the congregation.
From their early missionary work in New York, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur reached out to other areas of the United States that were in need.
Today the order has eight sisters listed as serving the Diocese of Charles ton. Two are principals at Catholic schools while others serve the needs of the people in churches and missions.
Their motto, as stated on the congregation’s Web site, is: “In the simplicity of my heart I have joyfully offered all to God.”
Sister Kathleen Kane, the pastoral associate at St. Francis by the Sea Church, has a long list of ways that she helps parishioners and members of the community in her service to God.
It boils down to one thing: “Whoever walks in my door and whatever comes across my desk,” Sister Kathleen said. “It’s all about listening to people and their concerns and doing what you can to help.”
Living their faith
Sister Caroline said the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur do not focus on one particular charism. Rather, the sisters are encouraged to use their personal gifts to best serve those in need. The congregation is always open to new calls of the Spirit, she said.
The sisters are involved with spiritual direction, Christian formation, and campus and hospital ministries.
An issue that is particularly close to their hearts is service to immigrants, and women religious across the nation have joined protests in favor of immigration rights.
The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur share the belief that an authentic life together calls them to embrace both eucharistic and common meals, along with a sharing of the Word of God as it is experienced in their daily lives.
A life of joy and simplicity is encouraged as the sisters open their hearts to the poor and marginalized of the world.
“Prayer, personal and communal, and community life are essential elements of our life as apostolic women religious,” the Web page states.
Hopes for the future
In a world today that is filled with choices and opportunities for women, religious orders struggle to attract new, committed members.
Sister Caroline said it is her hope to share the joy of religious life with other women.
“I hope that we will find those women who God is calling to live a simple and joyful Gospel life and to serve the universal church,” she said.