BY KATHLEEN SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — On March 26 and 27, attendees at the “Women of Faith — Women of Change” conference at the Columbia College heard heroic accounts about the women of faith who accomplish so much with so little.
Dr. Stephanie McCurry, the keynote speaker, led the conference with her presentation, “Women and Evangelism in Civil War South Carolina.” A historian and professor at Northwestern University, McCurry was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, first immigrating to Canada then the United States. At 25 years old, she found herself in Columbia with a strong desire to explore the area’s history of religious women during the 19th and early 20th century. She described women during this time as faithful servants who worked behind the scenes in the South. “They raised the money, distributed things to the poor and did much of the work, even though they did not hold any official titles in the church,” she said.
Other speakers were Sister Bernadine Jax, a pastoral administrator for two rural parishes in Dillon and Marion. Her talk during “Leaders of Communities of Faith” session was accompanied by women leaders from the Jewish, Hindu and Unitarian Universalist communities who shared their unique religious roles as well.
Sister Jax used the analogy of the door when she spoke of the role of women in the Catholic Church. “The doors are there. We need to approach them,” she said. The pastoral administrator also gave a historic account of great women leaders of the past such as St. Clare of Assisi whose persistence, vision and holiness formed a new order of contemplative sisters still in existence today. “At first [St. Clare’s] request was denied for the order, but she and her sisters prayed and the order was approved on her death bed,” Sister Jax said, illustrating how St. Clare obediently worked within the system and accomplished great things. “The future role for women in the church is exciting and hopeful, if we do not become discouraged and we take one step at a time,” she said.
The next session attracted a large number of Catholic participants. Dr. Gay Rowzie, superintendent of the schools for the Charleston Diocese, lead the session on the historic role of women in religious education. She was joined by Mary Hamin, an educational leader for the Muslim community.
Katherine Guerard, a student at Columbia College, wanted to attend this talk to hear about any new developments in Catholic education. She mentioned how she attended Catholic schools in the Charleston area and was interested in any changes.
Missy Walker, administrator for the diocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, was directly involved with the conference and provided introductions for both sessions involving Catholic speakers. When asked why she was attending the session on women educators, she said,” I am always interested in any ecumenical event and I see this talk as a way to learn about other religions.”
Dr. Rowzie started her session with an interesting and historic account of Catholic education in the country and then the state of South Carolina. “Catholic schools do not constitute a system but a pattern of need, call and service,” she said, explaining that women would either see or be made aware of a need then respond to the call and work towards a solution. The first women educators described by Dr. Rowzie had great obstacles such as primitive lands and hostile environments. Many religious women left their native land with a pioneer spirit to help educate the natives of America. “They came with what they could carry, there were no straight lines for them,” said Dr. Rowzie. As early as 1634, Maryland became a Catholic refuge where schools blossomed. But due to later persecution, the church went underground for a brief time. According to Dr. Rowzie, the South was being evangelized as well. For example, the French Ursuline sisters came to New Orleans to focus on the education of girls, other orders focused on educating the minorities and the poor throughout the United States.
In the history of the Charleston Diocese, the first bishop, John England, recognized the needs of the children and recruited sisters who are still active today in the diocese. Dr. Rowzie spoke about specific communities who responded to the needs and were instrumental in the continued growth of Catholic education in the state. Dr. Rowzie ended her talk with the need of today. “We are here as Catholic school educators to be the support of the family which is a challenge today with the family’s changing structure,” said the school superintendent, who remains hopeful about maintaining the partnership with parents as they work together to educate their own children and the broader community.