'Hope and a smile': After 26 years, Sisters Sheila, Stella leave indelible mark on Lowcountry

emoody@beaufortgazette.comJune 29, 2013 

Sisters Stella Breen, left, and Sheila Byrne are photographed with students at the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island on Monday. The two are retiring after running the center for the last 26 years.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

Six or seven decades ago, Catholic school girls Sheila Byrne and Stella Breen of Cork County, Ireland, sat in starry-eyed awe listening to missionaries tell of adventures in exotic, far-away places like Africa and China.

"That was the thing to do," Byrne said, recalling the women who made profound impressions on her. "Religious life was something special in those years, which it isn't today.

"Which is kind of sad, because it's a wonderful life."

St. Helena Island might not be Africa or China, but Byrne and Breen have spent much of their wonderful, religious life there. They have served the underprivileged and left a mark on the community as indelible as the impression those missionaries imparted back in Cork County.

But on July 7, the sisters will leave the Franciscan Center they have led for 26 years and five days.

"They give hope and a smile when people have nothing," said Marce Shinall, one of the center's 150 volunteers.

Truth be told, they took a bit in return, though.

"It's been a blessing and we've learned so much from working with diverse cultures," Byrne said. "It would be kind of sad, really, if we had not had these experiences of being with the Gullah people here on the island, as well as the Hispanic community, and learning all that we have learned from their cultures."

SERVING THE POOR

As young women Byrne and Breen packed their bags, said goodbye to family and friends, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to enter the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. Although they came from the same county, they never met until they joined the sisterhood.

For several decades, they went where they were told -- teaching children, studying, serving churches, staying at no assignment for more than six years.

Then one day in 1987, they were asked.

"Would we serve the poor?" Breen recalled. "Well, that was a strange question. We always went where we were told to go. You weren't asked much."

Nuns were needed in a place Breen and Byrne had never heard of -- St. Helena Island.

"We said 'yes,' but we have to go see the place," Breen said. "So we came and we saw. And as we turned around the bend in the dirt road up there, I think we were about to say 'Oh gosh, what have we done? Where are we going?' "

Their instructions were brief and simple: "We were told to come and live with the poor and listen to their needs," Breen said.

The sisters weren't sent to create programs they thought would be useful. They were sent to let the people come to them and tell what they needed.

And the people came.

Within the first six months, the mission was clear, Byrne said.

"So the very first thing people came for was to help their kids with schoolwork," she said. "...There were people looking for food. Clothing and food. And a young woman came and she needed help. She had an illegal card and she needed help with immigration."

'THE MISSION WILL CONTINUE'

For 26 years, the sisters have quietly led a charge to help those in need, regardless of race, immigration status or religion.

They coordinate more than 150 volunteers who help children -- the sisters call them their grandchildren or great-grandchildren or simply their "darlings" -- with homework when their working parents cannot. They provide migrant workers with boxes of goods the families need to survive the first week of harvesting, before a paycheck arrives.

Clothing, money for utilities, assistance with immigration paperwork, materials and labor for home repairs -- the list goes on. This year alone, the Franciscan Center has helped repair roofs, floors, kitchens and other problems at 100 homes.

Every year the center collect hundreds of used shoes for migrant workers. The workers need them because their footwear deteriorates quickly in the muddy Lowcountry soil.

But Byrne and Breen -- who, after 34 years of working as a team sometimes speak in tandem or finish each other's sentences -- say it is time to go while they are still sound of mind and body.

Breen, 84, will retire. Byrne, 76, said she needs a sabbatical and will be ready for her next assignment. Both are returning to Philadelphia.

They leave their legacy -- and a manual -- to the next sisters, including Sister Canice Adams, founding principal of St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Bluffton.

As they looked around the campus one recent, muggy day, Byrne and Breen reminisced about how much has changed. The dirt road was paved seven years ago. A campus that once consisted of only their home and a small office is now includes a thrift shop and sheds of donated goods. The small office is now a large building with a recreation hall.

"They definitely have something to go by now," Byrne said. "We have everything in order. The mission will continue, and I'm sure they will come up with more creative ways to help the poor."

Last Thursday, Vicky Sola, 59, folded clothing in the thrift store as she recounted how the sisters have been "mi familia" since Sola immigrated with her husband and two young boys 20 years ago from Venezuela. They helped her with housing, citizenship, English, encouraged her sons to go to college and celebrated holidays together.

"One day, everybody goes," Sola said, pointing up. "But there will be a nice place for them."

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

Related content:

Franciscan Center receives $15,000 grant, Sept. 11, 2011

On St. Helena Island, volunteers prepare for arrival of migrant workers, May 26, 2012

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service