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