By Mary Sue Lawrence for The Island Connection
When a group of Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy set up a small house on Johns Island in September 1989 to provide community outreach services, Hurricane Hugo put their efforts into high gear almost overnight. They haven’t slowed down in the 25 years since. Sister Mary Albert Greer, Sister Marie Amelia Ferillo and Sister Carol Wentworth were part of the small staff in those founding years, spreading hope to the people of the Charleston Sea Islands with food, clothing and emergency funds. They named their outreach the Christian Hope House, and it would grow and expand to become Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach as we know it today.
As the center’s original planner and director, Sister Mary Albert, now deceased, led the small staff of seven
with her trademark calm demeanor and creative approach. Her easy, comfortable way with people helped set the tone of the organization from the beginning.
“We’re here to listen to the people and find out their needs; with God’s help and the diverse gifts of this staff, we will respond,” she would say in her slow, Texan accent, recalls Sister Mary Joseph Ritter.
As her successor, Sister Mary Joseph remembers the close-knit staff sharing both the good and bad during weekly meetings so they would know they weren’t “walking alone.”
Soon after the Sisters set up Christian Hope House, a big crane arrived and placed containers in the backyard for food and clothing rooms and storage space. Sister de Neri Faase, Sister Marcella Zwingmann, Sister Eugenia DuFrehn and Ms. Jakki Jefferson were also part of the first team, and they all took turns visiting the needy on James, Johns and Wadmalaw Islands.
“We each had a geographic area to visit and get to know people in their homes,” recalls Sister Carol Wentworth. “We were ready to meet the many needs we found.”
“When Hurricane Hugo hit a few weeks later, our little house served as a relief center,” she continues. “No one was turned away because we received donations from all over the country. We started a program for home repairs. We offered education programs at the little table in the small kitchen, offering hope to several women. We served the migrant farmworkers in those early days, too.” The goal, says Sister Mary Joseph, was to help people help themselves.
Supplies flowed into the Hope House to stock the food pantry. One day, Sister Mary Albert expressed her overwhelming gratitude for the generosity of donors, handling a donation of a truckful of frozen yogurt with composure. “It was a real challenge finding space for it,” she said at the time, “But it quickly disappeared as the people were grateful to receive such a treat!”
“Even in those early days,” says Sister Mary Joseph, “one of the goals was to involve young people so they could understand they had the power to help change things for the better.” For her, a particular young man in the after-school program stood out. “He later became a volunteer tutor for other children in the program, graduated with honors from high school, completed college and got an excellent job,” she recalls. “He and his mother frequently visit to say hello and thanks!”
Another favorite memory is helping a family secure housing funds so they could move out of a substandard, rat-infested trailer and qualify for a Habitat for Humanity Home. The family members now volunteer with both the Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach and Habitat for Humanity, working with other families to help them find decent, livable housing.
What’s changed the most are the facilities, says Sister Carol. The small house and outdoor containers grew to become a new building on Brownswood Road. The mobile health center van led to an onsite trailer that served as a pre-natal and dental clinic (where many adult clients got dental care for the first time in their lives), which led to the current state-of-the-art Wellness Center. Classrooms replaced the kitchen table, eventually expanding to a separate Education Building made possible by a donation from a couple who volunteered in the after school program.
Sister Carol recalls how the Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach started the NunBetter Roofing Company, with Jakki Grimball Jefferson and a pizza deliveryman from Alabama as its first helpers. The company was part of the NAILS (Neighborly Assistance In Living Safely) Program that helped repair more than 300 island homes.
During those days, the organization served hundreds of islanders in need. After learning that a young woman, her mother and brother were living in horrible conditions and using a five-gallon bucket for a toilet, Our Lady of Mercy had a septic system installed and built a full bathroom for the family. Later that same young woman enrolled in an education program and completed her GED.
“It’s been exciting and enriching to see the many changes over the years, to see the children in the after school program grow up to be fine young people and adults,” says Sister Carol.
“I recently met someone at the DMV who told me that Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach saved her home by helping to pay the mortgage. I’ve been blessed in many ways by being a part of its history from the beginning.”
Through all of this growth and change, one thing remains the same, she notes. The staff and volunteers have for 25 years served those living on the margins with great respect and careful attention.
“Their respect for and care of others in need is genuine. It’s obvious that they’re there not just for a job, but because they care about their sisters and brothers,” says Sister Mary Joseph. “I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Current Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach director, Jill Jackson Ledford, says the organization will not drift from the mission the original team put in place a quarter of a century ago.
“We will continue to improve, to enhance what we’re doing to serve more people more effectively. One of the ways we’re doing this is to look at the best practices of organizations that have successfully moved people out of poverty. And we will continue taking care of what’s been passed down to us so we can continue to share the legacy. The mission of Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach will continue to grow because it was established with God’s blessings,” says Sister Carol.
Jill Jackson Ledford echoes that confidence. “We strive to continue the Sisters of Charity’s legacy as they laid it out initially in these ministries to serve the less fortunate,” she says. “We will stay true to the Sisters’ original purpose.”