In 2008, at their chapter, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy took the first step toward historical completion.
“We asked ourselves, if a hurricane came, how would we begin anew? What would we take?” The sisters acknowledged three core values: community, ministry, and prayer. With the help of facilitators, the sisters also took time to acknowledge and process the grief of realizing that the congregation was no longer able to provide a “viable community life” to new members.
They began a process of shifting focus to a more contemplative ministry, and being open to the “God of surprises.” The sisters named this process as “a new chapter” in their story.
The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston, South Carolina, is the only apostolic diocesan religious congregation with a motherhouse located in the state. Founded by Bishop John England in 1829 in Charleston, the congregation’s motherhouse and novitiate on James Island were dedicated in 1959.
The congregation’s leadership team, Sisters Mary Joseph Ritter, Ann Billard, and Carol Wentworth, drew on resources and support from the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO) as well as the Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI) and several canon lawyers.
A facilitator guided the sisters in developing a four-year strategic plan for 2009-2012. This plan provided “direction that was needed,” said Sister Mary Joseph. Priorities were ensuring care of the sisters, and looking at options for the future of their 23-acre harborfront property on James Island, Charleston.
The plan focused on the OLM legacy and charism, and how to “forward the mission” in light of the decision to come to their historical completion. Human development, community life, and governance were all addressed.
With assistance from a consultant provided by NRRO, the community completed an “elder care assessment.” Sisters Mary Joseph, Ann and Carol also attended an NRRO workshop for leaders looking at their “emerging futures.”
With the elder care assessment results in hand, the leadership team came to realize that they would need to sell the motherhouse property.
“It was the hardest thing as leaders to make that decision,” said Sister Ann. “We went to the cemeteries and talked with our former leaders.”
The entire congregation met in a circle of prayer in the chapel, to discern their future together.
Sister Ann led the sisters in a process “in terms of how to forward our legacy as each of us moved forward in our own lives.” The sisters asked each other: “What are the qualities you saw in women who have gone before us that we can go forward with?”
Trust, mercy, imagination, being adaptable – the sisters claimed these traits as part of their “spiritual legacy.”
“It was a long, long, internal process – claiming ownership,” said Sister Mary Joseph.
Sister Ann, who describes herself as an “elder midwife,” is able to use her gifts with her community, sharing her experiences and insights from years of pastoral counseling and providing workshops and retreats for older adults on “Transformative Aging.”
“We live as long as God has a purpose for us,” she said. She tells the sisters that “this is our time to harvest gifts of all the years, be more contemplative, find another way to answer the call.”
The team began “a long process” with Plante Moran Consulting Firm to determine their best course of action. The sisters initially had hope that they would be able to find an alternative use for the site, perhaps for a hospice or other health care facility, while continuing to live there, said Sister Carol.
After months of research and consultation with other advisors, it became obvious that the best option for the future was to sell the land and relocate the sisters.
On July 30, 2021, the sisters signed an agreement to sell their property to the State of South Carolina. The state intends to have the property managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR plans to create a state park and nature preserve. There are two historical spots on the property from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Fort Sumter, where the shot was fired that began the Civil War, is “right around the corner” from the property, said Sister Carol.
The history of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy has also been preserved and honored. The congregation’s heritage room remains at the motherhouse. The Diocese of Charleston is now the custodian of the congregation’s archives, which have been digitized.
The sisters were able to stay in the motherhouse for a year rent-free, while they looked for a new place to live. There is no Catholic continuing life care facility in the state, so the congregation needed to look at other options.
The Bishop Gadsden Episcopal Retirement Community, located five miles away from motherhouse on James Island, was selected as their new home. In 2021, the sisters began the “extensive process” of preparing to move.
Sister Carol led the charge to help the sisters in taking stock of what they wanted to keep and what they could let go. “It was a year-long process… each sister had a recycling bin outside her room,” she said. A timeline on the wall served as a daily reminder. Items such as rosaries, prayer cards, electronics and books were put aside for the yard sale or for donation.
The congregation held four yard sales of items from the motherhouse, including furniture, silverware, and placemats. “You would not believe how many placemats,” said Sister Carol.
Some of the statues on the grounds were moved to the sisters’ cemetery. The chapel altar and furniture were given to local parishes, and the chalices were donated to a priest in Ghana. The sanctuary lamp now illuminates the diocesan pastoral life center. The crucifix has a new home at the Church of the Nativity in Charleston, whose pastor offers Mass once a week at Bishop Gadsden.
On April 29, the grotto statue was moved to the grounds of Mepkin Abbey. The sisters have had a longtime friendship with the Trappist monks, often hosting them for Thanksgiving dinner at May Forest. This year, the brothers have invited the sisters to join them for Thanksgiving liturgy and dinner at Mepkin Abbey.
On June 26, the sisters welcomed Bishop Jacques Fabre-Jeune, the 14th bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, who celebrated liturgy with the sisters, joined them for dinner, and toured the Heritage Room. Sister Mary Joseph presented him with a book of the first 100 years of the history of the congregation.
The first sisters left May Forest and moved into Bishop Gadsden in September 2021, with the last sisters moving in August 2022. In their new home, the sisters are finding a new ministry of presence in a historical place with its own sense of mission, as they interact with the staff and other residents. On Sept. 24, all the sisters celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy at Bishop Gadsden.
The sisters’ mission also lives on through their sponsorship of Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach, established by the sisters in 1989. The program continues to grow in response to the needs of the South Carolina “sea islands” community, offering educational, health and social services, including a free dental clinic, after school program, English as a Second Language classes, a food pantry (Neighborhood House), GED prep, and women’s services. In July, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce honored OLM Community Outreach with its Non-profit of the Year award.
Sister Ann’s “Transformative Aging” programs are another sponsored ministry. The congregation also has an associate program, with 25 active members.
Currently, there are 12 Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in the community at Bishop Gadsden — four in independent living, five in assisted living, two in memory care, and one in skilled care.
“It’s an Episcopal community, a whole different culture… we’re still settling in,” said Sister Ann. “We are forwarding our mission in a different place.”
Cecilia Hudec saysOctober 24, 2022 at 6:54 pm
What a wonderfully graced journey you are on. You are doing it with joy and peace, albeit with grieving and lonliness, I’m sure. Wishing you many blessings, Sister Cecilia Hudec, SCH
Sister Connie Kramer SP saysOctober 24, 2022 at 8:14 pm
Beautiful sacred story of acceptance of acceptance and a willingness to grieve graciously one day, one letting go at a time.
Susanne Riley Emge saysOctober 24, 2022 at 8:58 pm
My childhood at the Cathedral Parish in Charleston- I was born in 1941–our extended family-and my father’s love and devotion to the glorious works of the Sisters of our Lady of Mercy were family conversations among us weekly- Their gifts in education and health care continue to mark the lives of the Lowcountry of SC and beyond in our state. Their outreach ministry continues to embrace the vision, values and mission of St Vincent de Paul. My husband and I now live at Bishop Gadsden and it is a blessing that we will celebrate our years to come in the presence of the Sister of Charity of OLM.
Ethel Beneville SC saysOctober 27, 2022 at 2:00 pm
Congratulations on looking ahead with faith and trust in God and each other
You made difficult decisions but with trust and faith I admire your tenacity and resilience you all are in my prayers