CHARLESTON—Leaning sideways in her chair, Sister Noreen Buttimer peered around the office doorway to greet her guest.
There is an immediate impression of efficiency: a face framed by a small cloud of white hair, eyes solemn behind glasses.
Dressed in a short-sleeve, white cotton shirt and black pants, a small wooden cross secured on a long chain, Sister Noreen has the look of a modern religious.
The Franciscan serves as program coordinator for Neighborhood House, an outreach center on America Street, and describes the ministry as rewarding and challenging,
“It’s the best ministry I’ve had in my 50 years,” she said.
“You’re working with God’s poor. It requires a lot of understanding and acceptance of the people.”
Sister Noreen said it has been the most fulfilling because she’s able to serve three main components: “It’s a ministry of real service to those who are poor, marginalized and oppressed.”
The past month in particular has been a time to reflect as Sister Noreen celebrates her golden jubilee. She has enjoyed several events with people in the community, and on June 20-22, she will gather with the Franciscans at the motherhouse in Aston, Pa., where they will celebrate all their jubilarians.
In July, she will return to her hometown of Youghal, County Cork, Ireland, for an extended visit with family and friends, who also have gatherings planned.
With all that attention on her 50th anniversary, Sister Noreen has cast a reflective eye over her years. She touches on her different roles, recalling good times and hard. Shining the spotlight of memory on herself, she talks about her parents and five siblings, and paints a picture of a self-assured young girl who knew what she wanted.
“I never wanted to be a nun,” she says, smiling at the irony.
Her father and other men in her family came from a long line of fishermen and sailors. Sister Noreen also felt called by the sea, and envisioned herself as a program director on the cruise ships that steamed in and out of her town’s port.
One day, a perceptive nun told the young Noreen that God had chosen her and she would also be a nun. She shrugged it off, but that same day, sitting in Mass and watching another group of religious sisters, she said the spirit spoke to her and she knew it was true.
Many a person along the way told Sister Noreen she was “too bold” to be a nun, but she persevered and professed her vows as a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia in 1964.
Over the years, she lived in several states, serving in schools as a teacher and principal, and in parishes as a director of religious education.
She first came to the diocese in 1979 to serve in the mission of North Augusta, and has been here the past 35 years. Sister Noreen spent time in Cheraw and its missions, then came to Church of the Nativity in Charleston.
In 2008, Sister Pat Keating invited her to serve at Neighborhood House, and Sister Noreen found a new home. She has reached a place in her life where she loves her work and the people she serves and works beside. She said Nikki Grimball, director, is a good man “to the very tips of his fingers,” and she praises the devotion of Sister Rosemary Boyd, OLM, who volunteers with the GED program.
Sister Noreen doesn’t talk about her own strengths or accomplishments, but others do. At the soup kitchen and clothes closet, volunteers greet the Franciscan with hugs and smiles. “To me she’s a great lady,” said Dorothy Rose. “She’s been very kind to me and she’s done wonders here.”
Grimball calls Sister Noreen and her ministry essential, noting the lives that have been turned around thanks to the GED program.
“Right now she’s the anchor that’s holding education in place here,” he said. “What Sister brings is hope. She’s also bringing a level of expectation.”
After 50 years, Sister Noreen said she still hears the call of adventure, to travel to exciting locales, but in the end the call of home is stronger, both in Ireland and Neighborhood House.
“Life’s been good. It’s been a blessing for me,” she said. “I feel blessed to have been called to religious life and be in service to God’s people.”
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