By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON — The large wooden wall hanging in Sister Susan Schorsten’s office reads: “Yahweh asks of you only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). It is an apt description of how she tries to live her life, in service and ministry.
The assistant to the vicar general for the Diocese of Charleston is preparing to leave the South to return to the leadership of her order, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in Villa Maria, Pa. While fulfilling her administrative duties for the church in South Carolina, Sister Schorsten has also been working as one of the councilors of her order’s leadership team for the last four years. Instead of continuing to burn both ends of the candle, she will light just one while surrounded by her community.
Living in community with members of her order is very important to her. Sister Schorsten’s call to the religious life came to her as a teenager in Louisville, Ohio.
“Through grade school I admired the sisters who taught me,” she explained. “They were happy people, and fun. In high school I had the same sense of people enjoying what they were doing.”
She joined the Sisters of the Humility of Mary immediately after school, but never ended up teaching.
“That was probably God’s gift,” she joked.
She studied nursing instead, graduating from St. John College in Cleveland, Ohio. She earned master’s degrees in nursing and health administration.
By 1983 she had risen to the position of president and chief executive officer at St. Elizabeth Hospital Medical Center in Youngstown, Ohio. She went on sabbatical the following year to study at the Washington Theological Union in Washington D.C.
“I wanted to steep myself in new theologies,” she said. “I love to learn.”
That desire led her to the Diocese of Charleston in August 1994, where she decided to learn more about herself by accepting the challenge of directing the Office of Social Ministry. The program had only two regional offices, and she had to establish two more and get a full-time person on staff.
Bishop David B. Thompson, retired bishop of Charleston, was delighted she took the job.
“Sister Susan came to us as a gift from the Lord and from her religious community,” he remarked. “I say this very, very joyfully, proudly and gratefully — She is what I call a real religious. She is dedicated, has high ideals, faith and service. She has loyalty in her work and is a real professional. She is very much a team player.”
Msgr. James A. Carter, vicar general, greatly valued her abilities.
“She is so extremely talented,” he said. “She has a very analytical mind and is able to cut through all of the fluff and get right to the core of something. As far as her virtues are concerned, she is one of the most forthright persons I have ever known. She can put off people because she is so very honest, but you can count on her to tell you just what she believes and what she thinks.”
Forthrightness, service and duty are some of her more pronounced gifts — and she is always looking for opportunities to develop her other blessings. She has had ample opportunity for growth and her life has been replete with challenges. In December 1999, Sister Schorsten was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy.
“Cancer was a gift in its own way,” she said. “In October 1999, one of the sisters of my order was giving a talk in which she said that we need to befriend illness. I didn’t have a clue about what it was going to mean to me.”
She figured it out, but it didn’t slow her down.
“I was grateful for the generosity of Jim (Msgr. Carter) and the bishop,” the tireless worker said. “They allowed me to continue to do what I could do from a work stance. I could feel like I had something that was engaging me.”
The only noticeable change was that she started carrying her work in a rolling bag instead of a briefcase.
“I have always been a learner and have been blessed with a tremendous amount of energy,” she said. “That’s why I worked two jobs. My natural inclination is administration because it is very task oriented.
Bishop Robert J. Baker recognized that inclination.
“I am sincerely grateful for the tremendous help she gave to the diocese and to me personally since my arrival as bishop,” he said. “Sister Susan is truly a gifted and professional administrator. Anything I asked of her she accomplished swiftly, accurately and with great skill. I am truly indebted to her for her devotion to serve well the Diocese of Charleston and its bishop.”
But Sister Schorsten admits that her inclination also takes something from her.
“As a result, I spend less time in relationship with people, and that’s not what I want to do,” she said. “I consistently take retreat weekends to have contemplative time.”
That time helped her cope with some of the more painful moments about her work. In her tenure in South Carolina she had to deal with a priest friend leaving his vocation and personnel misconduct issues. She also had to enact a screening program for new employees.
“That was a positive experience,” she said of the screening policy. “It raised awareness and protected children. Working with Sandy Hill (former human resources director) and Gay Rowzie (former superintendent of schools) was a team experience, and I had a good time doing it.”
She was also a major force in developing the Office of Ethnic Ministry.
“Working with different cultures is a valuable experience,” she said. “Each culture has such a diversity, and we bring wonderful gifts to the table.”
Another of her gifts is objectivity, according to Dorothy Grillo, director of the Office of Social Ministry.
“She has the ability to maintain a calm, objective and balanced view of things,” Grillo said of her friend and mentor. “Sister Susan stays calm in the face of crisis. Whenever I think about her in a work context I think about her phrase ‘both/and’ instead of either/or. She has this way of pulling out from each position the most valuable part and looking at the both/and. Things are not either/or as we sometimes like to make them.”
Though she is a positive person who looks forward, Sister Schorsten cannot help but have a sadness about her departure.
“I have enjoyed the people with whom I worked,” she said. “It has been a very life-giving experience. We worked in such a collaborative way. The beauty of the South is that I will take home a deeper appreciation of cultural diversity.”
As she looks busily to new challenges while living in community, Sister Schorsten pauses to count her blessings.
“I have been blessed by having been here,” she said. “I have a love for the people of the diocese that I will carry with me.”
PHOTO: Humility Sister Susan Schorsten enjoys a moment with Wade McDaniel at the Chancery offices.