KINGSTREE — Three nuns who have served for years in a rough, depressed neighborhood in a rural town in a state with few Roman Catholics have been singled out for a national church honor.
The Felician Sisters are being honored with the Light of Christ award from Catholic Extension, a group that has distributed more than $500 million during the past century to ministries in some the nation’s poorest communities.
“God simply used us as his instrument,” said Sister Mary Susanne Dziedzic who, with Sister Mary Johnna Ciezobka arrived in Kingstree 20 years ago. The community of about 3,300 is located an hour north of Charleston.
The nuns, joined by Sister Mary Jacqueline Benbenek about three years ago, operate an after school program, a food pantry, a clothing closet and other programs.
The award includes a $50,000 grant, half of which goes to the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston. There are about 195,000 Roman Catholics in South Carolina, about 4 percent of the population.
The rest of the grant will be for the sisters’ ministry, including support for a fourth nun, Sister Heather Marie Deneen, who arrived a few days ago.
A ceremony honoring the sisters was set for Wednesday in Kingstree. A reception will be held and a Mass celebrated in Charleston on Thursday.
“We recognize this is not our award solely. It certainly belongs to the community and those who continue to support us,” said Benbenek.
The sisters say their work could not be done without the help of other churches. They recall when a woman from the local Presbyterian church and the local Methodist church came by and asked what they could do to help. Since that time, the programs have crossed denominational lines.
The Felician Center is located on Thorne Avenue, notorious as an area of blighted homes – two standing across the street are condemned – violence and drug dealing.
“In our time, we have seen a murder across the street. We have had guys down the street on Mother’s Day shooting at each other. You have a lot of the drugs,” said Dziedzic, originally from Buffalo, N.Y.
But she has never feared for her safety.
“There is great respect for the sisters. People know we care for their children and they would not let anyone harm us,” she said.
Ciezobka said the sisters arrived in 1992 without a set plan. “We wanted to fall in love with the people and the people would tell us what they needed,” she said.
It didn’t take long. Just after they arrived, a small girl showed up at the center.
“Sister took her to the back porch and looked over her school work, I gave her a snack and that was two days after we were here,” Ciezobka, who is originally from Pittsburgh. “Before the week was over she was bringing five of her friends over.”
The after school program grew out of that experience.
“They have brought peace and anointing to Thorne Avenue,” said Ruth Rogers McGill whose son was killed in violence on the street in 1995.
“They are walking Epistles,” added McGill, a Pentecostal who volunteers at the Felician Center where her grandchildren attend the after school program. “I have always heard that a sermon lived is better than one preached.”
For the newest sister, Deneen, Tuesday was her first day serving in the food pantry.
“That’s what I was really looking forward to. The awards are great and it’s wonderful being honored,” she said. “The day to day things are why we serve.” ––––––– Follow Bruce Smith at http://twitter.com/brucesmithap