Diocesan religious order reflects on 190 years of service

Members of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy visited St. Lawrence and Holy Cross cemeteries in Charleston to offer prayers and lay flowers at the graves of their deceased sisters on Dec. 7, one day before their 190th anniversary. (Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss)

CHARLESTON—A gentle breeze blew through St. Lawrence Cemetery as a group of religious women from the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy walked carefully among the tombstones.

The sisters were there to honor all the women who came before as they celebrated the 190th anniversary of the order.

At one weathered monument, Sister Anne Francis Campbell, the order’s archivist, placed a colorful carnation. The sisters spent the afternoon praying and laying flowers at the graves of the deceased members of their community, both at St. Lawrence and Holy Cross Cemetery. 

For the women, it was not a sad occasion but a quietly joyful one, as they looked back on their long history in the diocese and the contributions they are still making. 

The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy was founded Dec. 8, 1829, by Bishop John England. Their founding came just nine years after the Diocese of Charleston was established. As the diocese prepares for its 200th anniversary in 2020, they look back on an entwined history of great achievements.

To help honor the historic occasion, Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, 13th bishop of the diocese, joined the sisters to celebrate Mass at their motherhouse on James Island on their anniversary Dec. 8. The women also enjoyed a musical program and had dinner with associates and supporters from around Charleston. 

(Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss)

On Dec. 7, at St. Lawrence Cemetery, the sisters paid special tribute to Mary Joseph and Honora O’Gorman, Teresa Barry, and Mary Elizabeth Burke —  four women who took religious vows to serve the poor, sick and orphaned, who became the first four sisters of the community all those years ago.  

Reverently, members of the order placed four purple blossoms on the flat, stone marker — the gravesite of some of those first four sisters, who were moved to the cemetery from their original resting place near St. Mary Church in downtown Charleston. 

“As we celebrate this anniversary, I feel like we’re standing on the very strong shoulders of the sisters who came before us,” said Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, a Charleston native and general superior of the order. “We as an order have contributed greatly to the whole history of the Diocese of Charleston, and we are continuing to contribute to that history.” 

From the beginning, the sisters made a huge difference in the lives of those they served, opening schools, hospitals, orphanages and outreach centers.

Over the years, the number of sisters has dwindled, but their dedication has not. Today, 13 women live in community along the Charleston harbor on James Island. Some are fully retired, but others participate in a variety of ministries, ranging from prayer to teaching adult education at parishes. 

Sister Ann Billard travels around the state and the U.S. offering workshops on “transformative aging,” to help older adults approach aging positively through spiritual growth. 

The order also continues to sponsor Neighborhood House in Charleston and Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach on Johns Island. 

Sister Anne Francis serves as the order’s archivist and historian, and oversees the impressive Heritage Room at the motherhouse, where artifacts and historic information are on display.

Three of the women are Charleston natives: Sisters Mary Joseph Ritter, Bridget Sullivan and Stella Maris Craven. All three women grew up attending Catholic schools and churches, where they saw the sisters in action, and were moved by the dedication and joy the women showed even during difficult times. 

Sister Mary Joseph and Sister Bridget are the two most recent superiors of the order. Sister Stella Maris retired in 2006 after serving more than 47 years in Catholic education, including 26 years as principal of Christ Our King/Stella Maris School in Mount Pleasant.

“It meant a lot to me to be able to join a local religious community back then, and now I think it’s really wonderful to live in a time when we can look back and appreciate how much those early sisters did, and the sacrifices and suffering they went through “ she said. 

To learn more about the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, their history and their mission, visit www.sistersofcharietyolm.org.