Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy

While attending the first Provincial Council of Baltimore in the fall of 1829, Bishop England met four women of that city: sisters Mary and Honora O’Gorman, their niece, Teresa Barry (aged 15), natives of Ireland and Mary Elizabeth Burke, who all wished to live a consecrated life dedicated to serving the poor, sick, orphaned and uneducated in his diocese. England accepted their offer and had them sail with him on his return to Charleston, where they landed on the following November 23. He established them as a religious community on December 8. He called the new community the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and patterned it after the Sisters of Charity founded by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

The Sisters quickly opened a school in their residence, which later moved to a larger site, where they established a school, orphanage and convent. They received incorporation by the State of South Carolina in 1835. They operated a number of educational and medical institutions which lasted for varying periods, including a school for the children of free blacks.

The Constitutions of the infant congregation were written by the second Bishop of Charleston, Ignatius A. Reynolds, in 1844. He based the Constitutions on those of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, whom he knew as a native of Kentucky, and on the simple Rule given to the Sisters by England, which was based on the Rule of Life of St. Vincent de Paul. In the mid-19th century, even thru the turmoil of the American Civil War, the congregation grew and expanded into the states of Georgia and North Carolina. At least eighteen Sisters provided nursing care on the battlefields and nursed prisoners of war in the prisons throughout the course of the war. Among those particularly remembered is Sister M. Xavier Dunn for her patient work in Confederate hospitals. Congress received so many testimonials to the Sisters care, that in 1871 it voted $12,000 in reparations to the rebuild the orphanage destroyed during the siege. As a congregation of diocesan right, the Sisters live under the full authority of the local Ordinary of the diocese in which they serve.

In 1882 the Sisters opened St. Francis Xavier Hospital, which exists today as Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in Charleston. They cared for soldiers wounded in the Spanish-American War and for yellow fever victims. The Sisters also responded to the increasing need for trained nurses by establishing the St. Francis Xavier Infirmary Training School for Nurses which opened on October 22, 1900.

The Neighborhood House has served the Charleston community since 1915 when it was established as a social service center and home nursing outreach. The soup kitchen at downtown Charleston’s Neighborhood House feeds 120 per day as well as providing GED preparation. The Sisters also staffed Bishop England High School.

In 1989 the society opened an outreach center on Johns Island, near Charleston. In the wake of Hurricane Hugo, Sister Carol Wentworth established the Nun Better Roofing Company; all work was free of charge. Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach focuses on health care, including dental and pre-natal services, and sponsors a Health and Wellness summer camp.

Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy serve Charleston, South Carolina from the May Forrest motherhouse on James Island.