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Felician Sisters in South Carolina win Lumen Christi award
Catholic News Service photo
Felician Sisters Mary Jacqueline Benbenek, Mary Susanne Dziedzic and Mary Johnna Ciezobka pose for a photo in late August. The South Carolina women religious are the 2012 Lumen Christi (
Catholic News Service photo
Felician Sisters Mary Jacqueline Benbenek, Mary Susanne Dziedzic and Mary Johnna Ciezobka pose for a photo in late August. The South Carolina women religious are the 2012 Lumen Christi ("Light of Christ") Award winners from Catholic Extension.
Catholic News Service

KINGSTREE, S.C. — The Thorne Avenue neighborhood in Kingstree was known for poverty, crime and hard luck when the Felician Sisters first arrived in 1992.

Twenty years later, their work has touched countless lives, transformed the neighborhood and the small Williamsburg County town, bringing races and different denominations together. It also earned the three Felicians the 2012 Lumen Christi ("Light of Christ") Award from Catholic Extension.

The annual award is given to a priest, religious or layperson who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. The first award was given 35 years ago to another Kingstree resident, Florence Kaster, who overcame racial barriers to teach members of the black community about the Catholic faith.

Sisters Mary Susanne Dziedzic, Mary Johnna Ciezobka and Mary Jacqueline Benbenek were honored for the ministries they provide alongside a group of dedicated volunteers at the Felician Center, including an after-school program, emergency food pantry, monthly meals for people in need, and a clothes closet. The center also offers assistance with medical bills and utilities, and popular programs such as the Kid's Cuisine cooking and nutrition classes for children.

The sisters were honored by more than 300 people at a Sept. 12 ceremony that drew local and state officials, their fellow sisters from around the country and from overseas, and Kingstree residents who have benefited from their efforts and worked with them.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston, who nominated them for the award, concelebrated Mass Sept. 13 with Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston.

"I'm absolutely inspired by these sisters and everything they've done to build up the faith here in Kingstree, to see the life of the church being lived so powerfully," Father Wall said. "Their way of living life and being present for those they serve has transformed the whole community."

Bishop Guglielmone said the Felicians are part of a rich history of religious women who have served the poor and marginalized in South Carolina for nearly 200 years.

"You represent religious women of South Carolina who do so much to reach out to the poor and those who need the healing, comforting touch of Jesus Christ," he said.

The Felicians received a $50,000 grant to be shared between their ministry and the diocese, and said their portion would be used to support a fourth sister, Sister Heather Marie Deneen, who joined them in Kingstree right after Labor Day. At the awards ceremony, Bishop Guglielmone surprised them by turning the diocesan portion back over to them for their use.

During the ceremony, several people referred to the railroad tracks in Kingstree which are an apt symbol. It was once a prosperous railroad hub but now is a quiet town with a population of about 3,300. Over the generations, the tracks served as a division between black and white, poor and rich, and until the sisters arrived, residents say few people ever ventured across them to help each other and learn more about their neighbors.

In a state where Catholics make up only 4 percent of the population, the area surrounding Kingstree has a history of suspicion and outright hostility toward the church. Priests, religious brothers and sisters who led outreach efforts in the area during the 1950s dealt with threats from the local Ku Klux Klan chapters because of their faith, and because they led programs for the area's impoverished black population.

By the early 1990s, the Klan was gone but Catholics still had only a tiny presence. Ecumenical activity was rare.
The sisters weren't put off by this or their neighborhood's reputation for poverty and crime. Their goal, they say, was to live among the people and listen to them.

"When people asked us what we would be doing here, I said we will fall in love with the people and they will call forth what they need," Sister Johnna said.

A few days after the Felicians moved into their house, a little girl knocked on the door and asked when they would be open for business. Out of that visit, a thriving after-school program was born. Other services followed as the area's needs became apparent. Today the ministry occupies four buildings along one side of Thorne Avenue.

They knew their work was changing hearts and lives when Methodist and Presbyterian women arrived at the center to ask how they could help.

"They dared to cross the tracks, and that was a new beginning," Sister Jacqueline said.

Now, 11 different Christian denominations and more than 60 volunteers of all ages and races work with the sisters each week.

"I am so proud of this award, so proud of what we've been able to do and proud for the people we serve and work with," Sister Susanne said. "God is working through us. We're simply the conduits. This town has been blessed."

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