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Little church, prison ministry fill days

NCR Staff
Ridgeland, S.C.

There’s Paws, the rectory cat with a guard dog complex. Paws hisses at strangers.

There’s the lush, year-round golf courses on Hilton Head Island, half an hour east.

There’s the rural charm: A battered handmade sign along Highway 17 says “Catholic church one mile.”

One Mass on Sunday: 11 a.m.

But as Oblate Fr. Michael Hussey discovered when he arrived in January 1995, it was an idyll on paper only. In fact, it is tougher territory than it first appears.

Here in Ridgeland, S.C., St. Anthony’s Church building is itself a great little tale.

There wouldn’t be a church for Hussey to call home if, 40 years or so ago, John and Susan Mertens hadn’t stopped in Ridgeland each year en route to Florida and their winter vacation. Before interstate highways, Highway 17 was the main north-south drag.

For the Mertenses, Ridgeland was the halfway mark between the Pocono Mountains, where they ran a hotel all summer and fall, and Boca Raton, Fla., where they spent the winters.

The couple would stop in Ridgeland again on the way back. Trouble was they wanted to go to Mass on Sundays, and the only church was in Hilton Head, then a beautiful but remote island. They kept getting lost on South Carolina’s winding back roads.

Their solution: Build a church in Ridgeland for the little town’s nine Catholic families.

January marked the 35th anniversary of the church’s dedication. It’s a nice little place, some quite good stained glass, a kitchen, church hall and rectory. Back then it cost $260,000. And though John and Susan Mertens are dead, their children still stop in when they make the Florida drive.

Ah, bliss, you say -- the ideal final pastorate. Could be. It’s golfer Hussey’s first pastorate and he loves it. Hussey’s here because he was downsized from one of his two favorite ministries -- hospice/hospital chaplain or prison chaplain. Incarceration or death. Jesus came to help us with our living and dying, but doesn’t it get a bit gloomy?

Hussey, ordained in 1960, still trim, wavy gray hair and a coffee cup welded to his hand, takes the opposite view and was happy to talk about it.

Paws hissed an unwelcome.

High school retreats

Between 1965 and 1972, in an era before team ministry, Hussey was doing back-to-back high school retreats. Assistant retreat directors didn’t merely preach, they also shopped for the food and functioned as general handyman.

“I decided, ‘I’ve got to get out of this,’ ” he said. He earned a master’s degree in psychology at Northern Illinois University -- 32 graduate hours -- in 12 months. “Crazy,” he said. “To pay bills I managed a fraternity house -- dusted and cleaned floors -- and assisted at a local church.”

Oblates didn’t ask for assignments, they received them. “The boss called: the penitentiary, at Vienna, Ill. -- pronounced VY-enna. I said, ‘For how long?’ He said, ‘A year. I’ll call you.’ He called me in 1982. Typical,” said Hussey.

After Hussey’s nine years in prison ministry, the boss told him it was time to move on. Hussey asked why. “ ‘Because you’re beginning to think like them and act like them,’ the boss replied. I was all set to ask him what he meant by that,“ Hussey recalled, ”but I thought, ‘Leave it alone.’

“He wanted me to go to a parish in Duluth, [Minn.]. I said, ‘Hold the phone,’ and accidentally, instead, wound up as a Mayo Clinic chaplain in Rochester, Minnesota.”

He loved the work. Until he had emergency duty on Christmas Eve 1985. The call came at 10 p.m. The temperature outside was 61 degrees below. He didn’t have a heated garage -- or any garage -- just a plug-in heater to keep the engine from freezing. The ice on the car was thick.

He got part of the windshield clear and one door open. “I was encased in ice,” said Hussey. “I said to myself, ‘Dear God, there’s got to be a place with palm trees that needs a nice guy like me.’

“I floated some résumés around and, lo and behold, St. Anthony’s Hospital, St. Petersburg, Florida. Would I be interested in being pastoral care director?” He would -- from 1985 to 1992.

There was a hospital merger. “They axed 16 department heads in one afternoon. I was a victim of modern health care.” From there Hussey went to the largest hospice in the world, the Hospice of the Florida Sun Coast, in Largo, with more than 1,400 patients. “When I started we had five chaplains. When I left, there were 12. I loved it for three years, but it burned me out. I was averaging 1.7 funerals a week, people I’d held in my arms. I got to thinking, ‘Hey, I’m 62. I don’t have too many more miles left.’ ”

An ice-free life

When he arrived at St. Anthony’s in 1995 he expected one church, one mission. No hospitals. No prisons. So he thought.

“It wasn’t in the job description, let’s say,” said Hussey, cheerfully enough. But there was a brand new prison in Ridgeland that had stood empty for three years. It didn’t open until Hussey arrived. Plus the parish takes in the penitentiary at Estill, S.C.

Although providing pastoral care for inmates in two prisons does not permit a life of acceptable, commendable near-indolence, for this Chicago priest it is a life that is ice-free.

The area is growing. He’s now saying Mass in six locations, including missions like Hampton. There’s an increasing Hispanic population.

Hussey knew the Chicago Mercy Sisters, and that’s how Sr. Mary Gallagher, experienced in Hispanic ministry, arrived at the mission church in Hardeeville as pastoral associate.

“This [Charleston] diocese is one of the leading ones for pastoral associates,” said Hussey. “I think we’ve got 14 now. I say the Mass but I can’t preach in Spanish.” Hussey writes the homilies in English, Sr. Mary gives them in Spanish.

The best and worst of hospital and prison ministry? “These are people in crisis and need to have a visible contact with the divine, with God and a means to get there. In a hospital situation it’s natural. They’re going into surgery -- they’re frightened. They need reassurance.

“In prison, it’s the same thing. It’s harsh, an extremely harsh reality. People don’t realize what it’s like in there. In reality quite a few of these guys are scared. They need to have something to hang onto besides the garbage that they live with.”

In prisons, the worst part is “trying to accommodate -- for lack of a better word -- my own philosophy with the punishment attitude of the whole system. My philosophy is that there is forgiveness, that there is rehab. I’m not saying anyone has to be just set loose again. It’s my experience the sole purpose of the prison system is punishment. Rehab is not even in their mind. They do perfunctorily what’s mandated. There’s no heart in it.”

The best? He saw it in Vienna, Ill. “I started for the first time a Cursillo in the penitentiary. And to see the response, not only of the men but of the Cursillo team from the Peoria diocese. Overwhelming.”

Hospital ministry “has always been the best, simply because you’re responding to people in their real moments of need. In the [operating room] or as they’re pulled off the ambulance going into the emergency room. Dealing with the families. Tremendous.”

In such circumstances, there is “an immediate feedback in what we’re all about, given the ministry we’re doing,” he said. “Many times in a parish I think there’s kind of a delayed feedback. You get it much later on.”

Yet even chaplains burn out.

Church in the South

Life in this part of the South?

“Hard to define. More a style, very down-home. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, not sophisticated. Segregation still exists. Thank God we’re one of the -- very few -- churches that has black and white members together. It’s amazing these people have kept the faith alive. They’ve really had a struggle. As Catholics they’ve really hung in there.”

Down here, he said, “they tell this joke about the nursing home. Only one Union guy left there, and one Confederate. Someone asks the Confederate, ‘What do you have to say about that?’ And the Confederate says, ‘Charge!’

“It’s an attitude,” said Hussey.

It’s time for breakfast. Hussey said he “wouldn’t dare subject anyone to my cooking,” and we join the breakfast bunch in the Palm Motel coffee shop.

Hussey is cordially greeted, a few handshakes. He has the breakfast special: sausage and biscuits. The priest points out one man, not a Catholic, who volunteers when the priest needs a few things done around the church. “Catholics are not looked upon too well,” the priest said. “They’re in the same category as blacks.”

But slowly, there’s change. In 1997, in Hampton, for the first time, from the steps of the First Baptist Church, a Catholic priest blessed the community Christmas tree. “It did not go unnoticed,” said Hussey. “And some people said, ‘It’s about time.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999