CHARLESTON — Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, OLM, is gracious and soft-spoken. She does not like to talk about herself.
She serves as director of the outreach center on Johns Island for her congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.
On a tour of the facility, she spoke warmly of all the services the outreach provides. In the classroom area, she smiled at everyone and took a moment to speak to each child. She introduced all the volunteers and praised them for their hard work and dedication.
One thing she did not talk about was her award.
Sister Mary Joseph was chosen for the Seton Legacy of Charity Bicentennial Medal because she lives her life in a manner that carries on the legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She received it May 23 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth in Emmitsburg, Pa., along with 49 other recipients.
Nobody at the outreach center knew anything about it.
When Claire Bergstrom, volunteer co-coordinator, caught wind of the honor, she said whatever award it was, Sister Mary Joseph deserved it.
The two women bantered lightly, with Bergstrom threatening to tell everyone, and Sister Mary Joseph playfully shaking her fist at her friend.
She takes no credit for earning the medal.
“It’s given for all the sisters who continue with [St. Elizabeth’s] work,” she said, adding that it is an honor for her whole community because they all walk in the saint’s footsteps.
She said the Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Center is a working symbol of what was important to St. Elizabeth: children, women, the poor, ill and neglected of the world. She credits this woman, who was born in 1744 and is the first American-born person to be named a saint, as the inspiration to her order and many others around the globe.
“What we do here is so representative of what the Sisters of Charity in America are all about,” Sister Mary Joseph said.
Sister Bridget Sullivan, OLM, said the outreach center became what it is today under Sister Mary Joseph’s guidance.
In a letter written to the nomination committee, Sister Bridget said the outreach center was primarily a food bank and clothes closet that offered some assistance with winter fuel bills before Sister Mary Joseph took the helm in 1990. Now it is a “mega-center” of dental and pre-natal health care, education services and social outreach.
She cites the first letter of John: “Our love is not to be just words or mere talk but something real and active” (3:18) in describing Sister Mary Joseph, and wrote: “Sister Mary Joseph’s entire life has given witness to this and has been a reflection of one’s vocation as a Sister of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. To this day, whether it be a person seeking food or a community member seeking an empathic ear or a staff member needing guidance, she demonstrates to all what it means to have been invited to fall in love with God. She has become the face of Christ to many on the Sea Islands of Charleston.”
Sister Mary Joseph was born in Charleston and grew up in Sacred Heart parish. She graduated from Bishop England High School in 1960 and entered the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy that same year. She said she was drawn to the religious life of a sister while in high school and has always felt it was the right choice for her.
Over the years, she has used her degree in elementary education as a teacher, and has also served as a formation director and in pastoral care. Currently, she is vicar general of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.
Those are the facts that Sister Mary Joseph is willing to share about herself, which is fitting for someone who, in the words of Sister Bridget, lives simply and humbly and always puts others first.
It is up to others to sing the sister’s praises. Mayor Joseph P. Riley has called her the “Mother Teresa of the Sea Islands.” All of her volunteers speak highly of her accomplishments and her warm and giving nature.
But Sister Mary Joseph turns it all back to her congregation, her volunteers, and the people who come to the outreach center. She said working at the center has been the best time of her life because she sees God there constantly.
One story she recalled was of a young woman attending classes at the facility. When the woman landed a job, she donated her first paycheck to the center as a thank-you for all they had done.
“It amazes me that people are so very, very grateful,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “Sometimes we don’t realize how hard it is for some to just live day to day.”
She noted that those very people are often the ones who are the most generous, always willing to help someone who seems worse off than themselves.