HARDEEVILLE — Sister Mary Gallagher retired in June after more than eight years as parish life facilitator at St. Anthony Mission. The mission is located in Hardeeville, a town of less than 2,000 in largely poor and rural Jasper County.
Sister Mary, a Sister of Mercy, came to Hardeeville in late 1997 with Sister Guadalupe Stump. Since then, her work has had a significant influence not only on life at the mission, but around Jasper County.
“Her influence has been just tremendous, unbelievable. She has a natural gift for the type of work she did at St. Anthony, and for the work she’s done in the community,” said Father Michael Hussey, pastor of St. Anthony in Ridgeland and the Hardeeville mission.
Father Hussey said Sister Mary’s fluency in Spanish and previous experience in working with Hispanics was a particular asset in an area with one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the state. A native of Chicago, Sister Mary has been a religious for 57 years. Before moving to South Carolina, she was pastoral coordinator at a large, majority-Hispanic parish in Aurora, Ill., that served more than 1,000 families.
“When I came to Hardeeville, the mission had 10 non-Hispanic parishioners and two Hispanic men — one Mexican and one Honduran,” Sister Mary said. “When I left there in June, we had about 185 non-Hispanics attending Mass and over 300 Hispanics.”
Sister Mary often acted as an interpreter in the Hardeeville area, assisting with translation at the police station, courthouse and in the schools.
She said the mission’s growth was mirrored in the three different church buildings the congregation used during her leadership. She said Mass was originally celebrated in a small church that seated 56 people.
Then, she recalled, a local benefactor built a hall for the mission, which seated about 125 people. Finally, the Diocese of Charleston purchased a vacant bank in Hardeeville and renovated it into a church that seats 195.
The majority of Hispanics attending St. Anthony are Mexicans and Guate-malans, Sister Mary said. She said most of them come to the area because of the booming construction industry.
Over the years, Sister Mary focused not only on helping those who attended the mission, but also the neediest residents of the county as a whole.
In 1999, she and Sister Guadalupe started the Hardeeville Thrift Shop Inc., which offers a variety of items at low prices and uses proceeds to help the poor in Jasper County. Sister Mary was also instrumental in starting Jasper County Neighbors United, a community development corporation with goals of bringing economic development to the area, and improving access to affordable housing and affordable health care for residents.
In late 2004, she was asked if she would be willing to put her name on the ballot for the Jasper County Board of Education. She was elected and is now the first Catholic and the first sister to serve on the board.
Sister Mary said one of the most interesting things about working in Jasper County was discovering that she and Sister Guadalupe were the first Catholic sisters to work in the area.
“The interesting thing is that we have been totally accepted by the civic community here because they know we are not here just for the Catholics, but to help everyone in need,” she said. “With something like the food distribution we do for the needy, there are no questions asked if people need help. And because of that, people here have put a lot of trust in us. That has been the wonderful aspect of working with this community.”
Sister Mary is staying in the Hardeeville area. She lives in community with Sister Guadalupe about a block from the mission church.
“I’m still here to minister — I’m not retired from that,” she said. “For example, the local mental health clinic is calling me to come and translate, the court still calls for translation. I have Hispanics from the parish still calling me about help for them. I resigned from parish life, but I’m not retired from life. It doesn’t end until it’s over.”