Living Lessons in Ecumenism

Some people theorize about ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, and other people live it every day.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

I had a chance to visit St. Ann Catholic Parish located in a rural Kingstree, South Carolina.  St. Ann is an old Jewish synagogue that the local Catholics purchased and renovated slightly in 2004 with support from Catholic Extension.  The renovations included installing a cross, a statue of Mary, a tabernacle and kneelers. Everything else basically remained intact.  Remnants of the church’s previous “owners” abound with Stars of David, Torah scrolls and Menorahs depicted in the stain glass windows and doors.  This physical environment reminds parishioners every Sunday of their common roots with those of the Jewish tradition.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

This small but active parish has had 13 pastors in the past 20 years.  In the 37,000 square-mile-diocese of Charleston, priests are stretched thin, trying to provide sacraments among distant mission communities.  During this time, a group of Felician sisters has given pastoral stability to St. Ann.  They teach religious education, lead choir and care for the church.  In addition to their parish duties, at what they jokingly refer to as the “syna-church,” these religious sisters run an outreach center “across the tracks,” which feeds, educates and clothes more than 4,000 people every year.  They intentionally situated their ministry in an area of town that is notorious for violence, drugs and alcoholism.

Catholics are less than 5 percent of the population in this area, so to accomplish their ambitious mission of serving the many who are poor and disadvantaged, the sisters partner with various local Protestant churches.  Sixty regular volunteers from different races, faith denominations and walks of life come together to serve through the Felician Center.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

One volunteer, Jean, who identified herself as Presbyterian, says that the sisters give Christians in the area the opportunity to fulfill what God is calling us all to do by encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones and go to the other side of the tracks to serve those in need.

I met another volunteer, Ed, an energetic 90-year-old Catholic parishioner from St. Ann. He told us that each Sunday he goes to Catholic Mass at 8:30 a.m., while his wife attends service at her Presbyterian church at 11 a.m.  But when it comes time to work with the sisters, Christian unity prevails.  For 20 continuous years, they have been tutoring kids and serving meals at the Felician Center and are amazed and proud to see how the ministry has grown.

It’s no surprise that these Felician sisters are among Catholic Extension’s 12 Lumen Christi Award finalists for 2012.  The nomination, which came to us from the bishop of the Charleston diocese and the people of South Carolina, recognizes that something truly special is happening here.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

Sisters Susanne and Johnna have had a presence in the area for two decades, and together with the broader Christian community, they are helping transform a very poor area.  A quick check of the U.S. Census Bureau statistics sadly confirms that Kingstree is located in one of the poorest counties of South Carolina and in one of the poorest states in the nation. But this is precisely the kind of place where you so often find the Church at its best, where people collectively rise to the challenge.

In Kingstree, people of faith are changing culture, social paradigms, and ultimately, minds and hearts.  To do this, they are focusing on what unites them and not what divides them.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

Doing the Math: What the Numbers are Telling Us

Numbers tell a powerful story of what is happening in the Church.  They also help quantify the progress as well as the challenges.  As I return from my travels in the Southeast coastal region of Charleston and Savannah, there are some astounding numbers grabbing my attention.

1 for every 100,000. 

In the Diocese of Charleston, there are currently four paid leaders who work with the Hispanic youth – 400,000 in total.  Although the Catholic population is growing rapidly, due in large part to the growth of the youthful Hispanic community, Catholics still comprise only five percent of the population.  Catholic Extension is discussing how we can help the diocese get more youth leaders for the Hispanic community.  “If we don’t get on board to do something, we can wave goodbye to them,” said Jerry, the diocesan director of youth and young adults.

Sr. Susan

Sr. Susan of St. Cyprian in Georgetown, SC proudly shows the kitchen out of which 23,000 meals a year are provided to the hungry.


This is the number of parishioners Sister Sandra of St. Cyprian in Georgetown, South Carolina, has single-handedly cultivated.  She is in charge of ministering to the Hispanics in her parish, and there are no clergy or other religious sisters in the area to help her out.  “What is your secret to success?” I asked Sr. Sandra, who operates out of an office located in a windowless storage unit where the roof is leaking and the carpet perfumed with mildew.  “We just try to help people see how essential our faith is,” she said.  From October to December Sister Sandra organizes 46 straight nights of prayer—a traveling novena which involves thousands of participants.  Each night it’s held in a unique home with food and festivities.  Her determination, unlike her facilities and equipment, remains intact.

Over 2,000. 

This is the number of volunteers that Sr. Susan, a daughter of Charity at St. Cyprian, coordinates on an annual basis.  Volunteers are Catholic and non-Catholic and they come from all over the county to work in one of the four non-profits operating out of the parish.  Together they assist 305 women in crisis pregnancies; teach English as a second language classes; reach out to those living with HIV/AIDS; serve 23,000 meals a year in their soup kitchen and provide clothing, medicine and emergency utility assistance to the poor.  It’s a huge and inspiring effort.   “Parishioners are involved in everything we do,” said Sr. Susan, who talks fast, indicative of the fact that she has a lot on her mind.  Catholic Extension is exploring opportunities to support St. Cyprian as it works to grow even more.

Mary Lou

Mary Lou, a Catholic who works at one of non-profits operating out of St. Cyprian, points to pictures of the many healthy infants and toddlers whose well-being can be attributed to work of this organization.


This is the total number of staff at Holy Family parish in Metter, Georgia.  She is a woman religious named Sr. Mary, and her salary is supported by Catholic Extension.  Sr. Mary is responsible for managing the activities of this church, which include a robust religious education program, a food pantry, clothing assistance, and migrant outreach.  It is the only Catholic church in the county.  “We love Sister Mary,” said Carol, a long-time parishioner and volunteer. “I’ve watched this church grow and I want that level of person for my grandchildren.”

3 days. 

This is the minimum number of days each week Mrs. “Lala” volunteers at her local church of St. Rose of Lima in rural Baxley, Georgia, which is supported by Catholic Extension with a small operating grant.   And it’s not as if she has nothing better to do with her time.  She is the mother of two boys and she owns a “pine straw” business that employs 25.  “My faith is the most important thing in my life,” she remarked.  Mrs. “Lala” teaches religious education to 40 children, runs the youth group for 30 teens and young adults, and organizes various other activities for this mission parish of 120 families.  Her tireless efforts are having an impact.  Each year the church continues to grow, and the youth see her as a trusted leader, often calling her to share their hardships and seek advice.


“Lala” is determined to help the young Catholics of her rural community. They face many challenges.

The numbers speak volumes about the progress we’ve made and where we still have a long way to go.  Catholic Extension remains committed to these dioceses to help seize the opportunities before us to ensure the bright future of our Church in the Southeast.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management