The drive from the Rev. Jennie Olbrych's West Ashley home to St. James-Santee Episcopal Church in McClellanville takes about an hour.

An hour that Olbrych — wife, mother, teacher, priest, student — has come to cherish.

"I don't listen to the radio," she says. "That hour up and hour back are wonderful, peaceful times. I can be alone with my thoughts and remember those things which I ought to have done and those things which I have not done."

Olbrych, 58, makes the trek to the church, where she serves as vicar, on Sundays and one day a week. Many weekends, her family comes to worship, usually arriving in a separate vehicle. "I love McClellanville, and I love that congregation," she says. "It has a great history and is a beautiful village."

But the time spent in McClellanville is just one chapter in a very busy life.


Olbrych is also a mother of five children ranging in age from 10 to 19.

Being a mother is "the hardest thing I've ever done," Olbrych says. "It has moments of great joy, total frustration and sorrow. I am so thankful for each of my kids."

In a bustling house, one of the biggest challenges is finding family time.

"It feels like we are constantly running, trying to go in 90 directions at the same time," she says. "The challenge is trying to find downtime, times when we can actually enjoy each other's company."

That time comes on weekends and at dinner each day.

"We are absolutely, irrevocably committed to 6 o'clock family dinner every night," she says. "That helps ground us. There are many nights where we're extremely grumpy at the table, but we're together."

The Olbryches, Jennie and husband John, did not set out to have such a large brood. After John and Ana, who were both adopted as infants, they planned to add one more child. They felt called to Eastern Europe.

"We really had a sense God was saying to us, 'There are some more places at your table,' " Olbrych says. "We set out to adopt one teenage girl, and we feel like God negotiated us up to three kids."

In 2004, the Olbryches brought home Ukrainian biological siblings Russ, Oksana and Max, who were 12, 6 and 5 at the time.

"Adding our last three family members has stretched us in ways we could not have imagined," she says.

They also gained an extended family, staying in contact with another sister adopted by a family in New York. Olbrych and Russ will go there soon for her bat mitzvah.

Ukrainian orphans age out of the system at 16, and statistics show that only a third of them are alive five years later, Olbrych says.

"I look at my three kiddos and think, 'Two out of the three of you would not have made it,' " she says.

And so adoption has become a passion.

"I really would like to challenge people to look and see if there is an extra place at their table," she says. "There are so many kids right here in South Carolina, whether it's through adoption or in foster care, who really need the stability of a home and not to change beds every few nights."


Four days a week, Olbrych makes her way to Porter-Gaud, the private Episcopal school where she is the first chaplain in the Lower School.

"The school is making an effort to reclaim its Episcopal identity, and it's very exciting to be a part of that," she says. "I get to talk about God and conduct chapel for first- through fifth-graders. They ask great questions."

It's the first time in the 20 years since she was ordained that she has worked specifically with children, and she finds the challenge refreshing.


Olbrych grew up in Columbia as the oldest of six children, starting high school the same year it was integrated there and making her "acutely aware" of the civil rights movement.

At the University of South Carolina, she majored in media arts, a now-defunct program that mixed art and broadcasting to "explore the educational potential of electronic media." Jobs as a media producer, mostly for nonprofits, followed.

She met husband John while both were working at the university. After they married, they moved to Charleston, where he took a job teaching at the College of Charleston.

Olbrych says the real turning point for her came in 1976 when the Episcopal Church decided to allow the ordination of women into the priesthood.

"Although I can't say I was really, really involved with the church at that point, I thought, 'Oh, wait a minute. This is something,' " she says.

She was part of the church but never had that "road to Damascus" kind of experience that she was being called. Instead, there was "just a slowly growing conviction that that was where God wanted me," she says.

So she headed off to Virginia Theological Seminary.

"John stayed here and continued working at the college," she says. "That was how we were able for me to go to seminary. Our agreement was that we would talk on the telephone every single night, which we did do, and that we would try to be together on the weekend at least twice a month. When you are separate, it's the immediacy of daily experience that gets compromised. We felt it was really important to maintain that connection."

She has spent her entire ordained ministry serving churches in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, first at St. Paul's in Summerville, then working with Bishop Edward Salmon doing interim work and consulting in area churches, and seven years at St. Peter's, which is now the Church of the Good Shepherd, in West Ashley. She took a brief break after bringing home her Ukrainian children and has been at St. James-Santee for three years.


For the past three years, Olbrych also has been working on her Doctor of Ministry degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. She has finished the coursework, but has about three years to go as she designs and carries out her research project.

"I am a perennial student," she says. "I love learning. Education is something that's very important to our family."

She always thought she'd seek a doctoral degree, but, "I didn't want to do it until I had a really good question," she says. "And I found my researchable question, and that was really exciting."

While researching older child adoption, she learned about attachment disorder and became fascinated.

"What I want to do is study how adult attachment patterns impact leadership in faith communities," she says. "It's amazing how God has shown me so much about the church through the adoption experience."

It's a full life, she admits, but she has worked hard to stay grounded.

"In family and in school and at church, I try to help people be anchored in the things that have eternal value," she says. "For me, those are things like Christian faith, caring for children, and frankly, I just love South Carolina. I love the land. God has been very faithful to sustain us."