Kingstree nuns heed Felician call to serve the poor
Two decades ago, Sister Johnna Ciezobka, a nun from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, was teaching high school. Sister Mary Susanne Dziedzic was a principal from Buffalo.
By the numbers
The Felician Sisters live and minister in Kingstree, one of the state’s poorest areas. Nearly half of the children live in poverty, and adults face one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. Here is how the four sisters helped the community last year:1,200People fed a hot meal150 Families given bag lunches250 Families given emergency food packages60 People helped to access medical, dental and eye care40Children taught in an after-school tutoring program300Families fed emergency food at a satellite food pantry in Lake City
Yet the two Felician Sisters felt called to immerse themselves more deeply into the lives of people facing dire need.
They moved to Kingstree, one of South Carolina’s poorest towns, into a house on Thorne Avenue, a notoriously impoverished and drug-riddled area. Few white folks ventured there.
Their convent overlooked train tracks that literally and figuratively bisect Kingstree’s people by race and income.
On their second day in town, a little third-grade girl knocked on the sisters’ door.
“What are you white ladies doing here?” she asked.
The nuns helped her with homework and gave her a snack. By week’s end, the girl brought five friends.
Across Thorne Avenue, two local women — sisters-in-law, neither Catholic — heeded Jesus’ call for his people to love their neighbors as themselves.
Flora and Jeanette Burgess embraced the sisters. The four passed many sunset hours on front porches, discussing who needed what kind of help and forging an infectious neighborhood trust in the sisters.
Flora and Jeanette also sensed the nuns’ fear.
By night, one sat on her front porch, gun tucked beneath a blanket on her lap, phone at her side, watching the sisters’ convent until the lights went out.
By day, when the convent’s doorbell rang, the phone rang, too. Flora or Jeanette would call to let the sisters know if the visitor really needed help — or would take advantage of kindness. Or worse.
Men down the street shot at each other one Mother’s Day. The sisters saw a slaying across the street. Crime was common.
“We were younger and braver. Maybe dumber. We were just excited,” Ciezobka says. “We were going to love the people, and they were going to call forth from us what they needed.”
Call forth they have.
On this Easter, theirs is a story of how the ministry of a few can resurrect the faith of an entire community.
From Charleston, Kingstree sits a peaceful hourlong drive through the Francis Marion National Forest. A sign on the way into town reminds passers-by: JESUS LOVES YOU!
Rural towns like Kingstree lean heavily evangelical Protestant. It once was illegal for Roman Catholics to own property here, and the KKK was known to target them. Even today, within Williamsburg County’s 937 square miles, there is just one tiny Catholic church.
So the sisters started small.
One sweltering day early on, Flora and Jeanette Burgess helped them hold a yard sale on Thorne Avenue, a straightaway street of timeworn houses, selling clothes and sheets donated by the nuns’ friends up North.
Afterward, people began stopping by with donations. The yard sale grew into a clothing closet.
Next, the sisters provided emergency help for folks who suddenly lost homes or jobs. That grew into a food pantry and regular hot meals.
The needs seemed endless. There is no Salvation Army, no United Way and no Goodwill in the entire county. Yet in Kingstree, a town of 3,300 people, 64 percent live in poverty.
Over time, donations increased. Volunteers showed up. Fellow Felicians visited to help and sent boxes of clothing.
Grants from the Sisters of Charity Foundation seeded many programs, including medical care and computers for the after-school crowd.
“It is really a joyful thing,” Sister Heather Marie Deneen says. “We are closing a deficit.”
Today, the Felician Center provides clothing, meals, groceries, after-school care, tutoring, medical care, camp, Family Nights and more. The sisters also serve at St. Ann’s parish, where they work with religious education, liturgy and music.
They even performed in a local talent show this month.
One recent morning, the nuns tick off their endless to-do lists.
“The facets keep adding on, but none have dropped off!” declares Dziedzic, known for her robust laughter and blunt observations.
The other nuns, most in simple dark brown jackets and tan skirts, burst out laughing.
Sister Mary Jacqueline Benbenek adds a bit more demurely: “Because of the trust people have in the sisters, they don’t fear coming to us at all hours.” They all laugh again.
The nuns were even invited to act as grand marshals of the local Pig Pickin’ Festival.
“You know you’ve arrived when ...” Benbenek says.
The sisters pile into a silver Dodge Caravan and zip over to Kingstree Presbyterian, where the smell of fried chicken welcomes folks from local churches to a Lenten luncheon.
They sit with Ed and Alice Molokie, who helped the sisters unpack 21 years ago. Ed Molokie, who just turned 90, remembers when Catholics were suspect and nobody crossed the tracks.
“Before they came, not one person in this room would go to Thorne Avenue. Since then, people from this side go to that side,” Alice Molokie says.
It is the Felician way.
They are an active and contemplative order, serving the world by day, praying for the world’s needs by night.
When Pope Francis honored St. Francis of Assisi by name and stressed serving the poor, the sisters rejoiced. The Felicians, a branch of the Third Order of St. Francis, were founded by Sister Mary Angela Truszkowska, who cared for homeless children in Poland.
To honor her, the sisters offer free hot lunches called Blessed Angela meals, which feed 80 to 100 each month and have become hallmarks of ecumenical pride in Kingstree. Eleven churches from different denominations rotate hosting the meal at the Catholic outreach.
It started when a Methodist knocked on the convent door.
Trudy Rice and her friend, Jean Nexsen, a Presbyterian, had attended a Bible study that discussed reaching beyond one’s comfort zone.
Embarrassed, Rice crossed the tracks and knocked.
“Is there any way we can help you?” she offered the nuns.
Today, ecumenical partnerships fuel the Felicians’ outreach (where Rice and Nexsen now serve on the board).
“The sisters are doing what God called them to do — and what they love to do,” said the Rev. Joe Blackwelder, pastor of Kingstree United Methodist. “It has nothing to do with denomination. We’re all trying to reach the same ends.”
By 2011, the Felician Center’s programs had grown so much, the sisters needed a new, bigger outreach center.
“We’re going to have to have bake sales for 25 years,” Dziedzic groaned.
They held a fundraiser with no idea what to expect. Would anyone even come?
Local church members, business owners and elected officials turned out en masse.
The sisters dedicated the 5,000 square-foot St. Ann Catholic Outreach in July 2012. It was fully paid for.
“Divine providence has always provided. And guess what? It provided,” Ciezobka says.
In the simple white building, they now have a kitchen, dining hall, office space, clothing closet and other areas.
But with more space for programs, already heavily reliant on 60 weekly volunteers, the sisters needed a fourth nun.
Then Benbenek took a call that changed their lives.
It was from the Rev. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, a national group that supports poor mission dioceses. The Kingstree sisters had won the Lumen Christi Award, which honors a person or group who shines the “Light of Christ” on those they serve.
Benbenek handed the phone to the others.
When the last sister hung up, they all screamed and jumped around the convent. They cried. Then they went to their small chapel and prayed.
Rock star sisters
A funeral home donated a limousine to transport the sisters to their award reception, where 350 people, black and white, rich and poor, from all denominations, ate together.
Rock star sisters
National Felician leaders came. So did the bishop. Kingstree’s mayor spoke.
The sisters received a $50,000 grant to split between their ministry and the statewide Diocese of Charleston.
The nuns announced they would use their portion to “buy another sister” and introduced Deneen, who had arrived days earlier.
“It was a little overwhelming,” admits Deneen, who at 34 is the youngest of the group.
Then Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, who nominated the nuns, stepped forward with a surprise.
He donated the diocesan portion of the grant back to the sisters.
“It was a magical moment, no doubt about it,” Ciezobka recalls.
Not that success has dulled the sisters’ drive. Benbenek points to Matthew 25: “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.”
“Have we done that well enough?” Dziedzic challenges the others.
Outside the convent, many insist yes.
“They have brought peace and anointing to Thorne Avenue,” Ruth Rogers McGill, whose son was killed on the street, told the Catholic Exchange after the award was presented.
But the sisters see more to do.
Last week, four young men showed up at the center. Gerald Scott, Avery Woods, Devante Wiggins and Montana Morris asked, could the sisters do something sports-wise in the neighborhood?
Dziedzic’s eyes lit up, plans and prayers already churning through her mind.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.