When we were last at St. Lawrence Cemetery in Charleston, I shared stories about some of the more wealthy and successful Catholic residents of the city. This week, the pendulum swings in the other direction.
It’s not unusual to see a lot of children’s graves at an older cemetery like St. Lawrence. Child mortality rates were sky high before the advent of antibiotics. But I noticed that in more than one place, there were specific plots filled with small stone crosses. I believe they mark the graves of children whose parents probably couldn’t afford a marker for them.
The first plot I saw was near the front gates. These crosses have no names attached to them. I saw a few regular children’s markers (with names) mixed in with them. Most of the names on the markers around them appears to be of Irish origin.
Closer to the middle of the cemetery to one side, I found another plot of similar crosses. I’m not 100 percent sure they are all children, but that’s my guess.
In this plot, I noticed a handful of metal crosses with only numbers on them. I don’t know when these were placed. Part of me wonders if these were from the local Catholic orphanage. The only other time I’ve seen numbered crosses was at a cemetery for a mental institution.
The last children’s plot is located in front on a group of nun’s graves.
The tall white markers behind the little crosses represent the nuns in service of Our Lady of Mercy (OLM), once simply known as the Sisters of Mercy. They started burying the nuns at St. Lawrence in 1854, not long after it opened. This group in the photo are more recent burials. The group buried to the right of them (past my red CRV) include some of the first nuns that were part of the order.
The actual order was established years before St. Lawrence opened. The story begins in 1829, when Bishop John England traveled from Ireland to Charleston to begin a ministry for orphans. The frequent yellow fever epidemics left many children without parents. But Bishop England soon realized he needed help.
While in Baltimore, Md., Bishop England met Irish nuns (and literal blood sisters) Honora and Mary Joseph O’Gorman. With them was their niece, Mary Teresa Barry, who was only 14 at the time. Bishop England invited them to join him in his work in Charleston. Their main goal was to open schools for orphans. Thus was started what is now known as the Sisters of Mercy of Our Lady of Mercy (OLM).
Bishop England also wanted “to have a school for free colored girls, and the religious instruction of female slaves.” This objective was achieved in part in 1835 when he established a school for free colored children in Charleston. Two students from the Diocesan Seminary were placed in charge of the boys and two OLM Sisters were assigned to teach the girls. In a few weeks, they had over 80 children in the school. Unfortunately, pressure from outsiders forced the closing of the school within months.
In 1841, Bishop England tried again to open a school and put Sister Teresa Barry in charge. The school was initially located on Queen Street opposite the Medical College. Later, it was moved to the grounds of the OLM Motherhouse on Queen Street. In 1844, the OLM Sisters elected Sister Teresa to be their Mother Superior.
In November 1844, at the request of Bishop Ignatius Reynolds (who established St. Lawrence Cemetery), the OLMs moved the school from Queen Street to rented rooms on King Street where it remained until it was closed in 1848. However, Catholic almanacs from 1849 through 1853 show that the Sisters gave instruction to “colored persons” four evenings a week. After the the Civil War in 1867, Mother Teresa wrote to the current bishop with hopes of reopening a free school for black children but was denied.
It wasn’t until 1904 that the OLM Sisters were again able to teach black children. They taught at the Immaculate Conception School operated from 1904 to 1917 (along with a school at St. Peter’s, a church for black Catholics). In 1917, the Oblate Sisters of Providence of Baltimore were invited to take over teaching duties at St. Peter’s and Immaculate Conception Schools.
During the Civil War, Mother Teresa and five OLM Sisters traveled to Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, Va. to staff a Confederate military hospital. As the Union Army advanced in May 1862, the hospital moved to Montgomery White Sulphur Springs. When the war ended, there were more than 300 soldiers in the hospital. Despite shortages, the Sisters stayed until the patients were discharged or died.
Mother Teresa died in 1900 at the age of 86. Father Patrick Duffy, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, called her “a valiant woman, tender mother, courageous to suffer and quick to sympathize.”
When the OLM celebrated its 100th birthday in 1929, its numbers included 86 professed sisters and four novices. Today, there are only about a dozen OLM sisters still living, all of them elderly.
However, the efforts of the OLM are still felt in Charleston. Our Lady of Mercy Sisters of Charity convent on James Island runs the Neighborhood House, which has a daily soup kitchen to feed the poor and offers education classes to help people receive their GEDs.
I’m not quite done with St. Lawrence yet, too many unique monuments to talk about and stories to share. Stay tuned for Part III.