Franciscan sisters to move on after 25 years in Beaufort

ST. HELENA ISLAND—Journey down the dirt road and find peace.

That is the motto of The Franciscan Center, and a real-life experience for everyone who follows the path to the  marsh-front oasis created by Sisters Stella Breen and Sheila Byrne.

The Franciscans are experiencing a bittersweet time right now as they celebrate 25 years in the area and, simultaneously, plan for retirement.

Come next summer, they will return to their motherhouse in Philadelphia, where Sister Stella will retire and Sister Sheila will find another project.

Lifting her eyebrows and practically radiating energy, the 74-year-old said she doesn’t know what that will be, but feels it’s fitting that their ministry on the islands ends the same way it started — together.

The prospect of a Franciscan Center without the sisters who created it has sparked strong emotion. Supporters are worried what will happen when they leave, and wonder if anyone can possibly fill their shoes.

“It’s an absolute joy to work with those two sisters,” said Jim Duncan, who volunteers with the home repair team. “They’re the closest thing to saints I’ve ever met.”

When Sisters Stella and Sheila were first assigned to the Beaufort area, they didn’t know each other or have any clear direction.

Laughing, they recalled how Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler told them to just go, listen to the needs of the people. So they did.

Two immediate concerns that have remained top priorities for 25 years were the horrible state of housing and dismal education.

“It hurts us to know kids are sitting four years at high school and not getting a diploma,” Sister Sheila said.

Sister Stella adds that they are always striving to “turn on the magic of learning” in their after-school program. Those who are successful in their school year earn a two-week summer camp filled with off-site adventures.

The center, with more than 150 volunteers, also has a strong migrant ministry, helps with immigration issues, runs a pantry and thrift shop, evangelizes through seasonal activities, assists the elderly, and so much more.

“You just have to say ‘will you’ and the answer is yes before the question is even finished,” said Eveliena Polite, a regular at the Thrift Shop. “The people here are so beautiful. They brought more than material things, they brought love and peace of mind.”

The Franciscans said they are looking forward to celebrating their anniversary with the community, adding that it’s their way of saying thank you to everyone for being so giving, welcoming and supportive.

They are certain their replacements will be greeted the same way.

Sister Stella’s serene face and smile belie her 83 years, but she has been physically limited by a need for knee replacement surgery, one of the factors leading to retirement.

As the women talk about their ministry, they laugh at shared memories, filling in thoughts in an easy backand-forth manner, the Irish lilt of their homeland still infusing their voices. They said they’ve been blessed 1,000 times over by their years on the islands, but feel it’s time to move on.

“After you’re 25 years in a place, what more? You need new blood,” Sister Stella said.

“New energy levels,” Sister Sheila added.

It’s hard to believe anyone could have more energy or enthusiasm than these two. At one point, Sister Sheila went striding across the lawn and, like a strongman, hefted a wooden bench to move it into the sun, shouting happily that she was getting her exercise for the day.

“God blessed me with energy,” she acknowledged, “and I have to use it for good.”

Clients and volunteers alike see plenty of good at the Franciscan Center.

Mae Mitchell and Mary Oenbrink are both longtime volunteers at the shop. They said the sisters are like family and will be missed, but they deserve a rest.

“I just love what they do and I think they’re out of this world. I really do. I just can’t say enough about the sisters. They’re fabulous people,” Mitchell said.

One of the gestures that touches her most are when the sisters bring in a family whose home has burned and tell them to take whatever they need, at no cost.

Michele Duncan, an office volunteer, said the outreach is a balm for the workers, many of whom come on their days off just to say hi.

“It’s a place to renew your spirituality,” she said, praising the sisters’ open-door policy and their willingness to always find time for others. Often, former clients become volunteers — people like Sam Brown, who first frequented the center 23 years ago, and now works with Second Helpings.

“I enjoy assisting those who need it,” he said. “I’ve been there myself.”

Brown hopes the ministry will continue, because even though the sisters are leaving, the people who need help will still be there.