Mountain Sisters

Mountain Sisters: From Convent to Community in Appalachia

Helen M. Lewis
Monica Appleby
Foreword by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Mountain Sisters
    Book Description:

    Monica Appleby and Helen Lewis reveal the largely untold story of women who stood up to the Church and joined Appalachians in their struggle for social justice. Their poignant story of how faith, compassion, and persistence overcame obstacles to progress in Appalachia is a fascinating example of how a collaborative and creative learning community fosters strong voices.Mountain Sistersis a prophetic first-person account of the history of American Catholicism, the war on poverty, and the influence of the turbulent 1960s on the cultural and religious communities of Appalachia.

    Founded in 1941, The Glenmary Sisters embraced a calling to serve rural Appalachian communities where few Catholics resided. The sisters, many of them seeking alternatives to the choices available to most women during this time, zealously pursued their duties but soon became frustrated with the rules and restrictions of the Church. Outmoded doctrine -- even styles of dress -- made it difficult for them to interact with the very people they hoped to help. In 1967, after many unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Church to ease its requirements, some seventy Sisters left the security of convent life. Over forty of these women formed a secular service group, FOCIS (Federation of Communities in Service).Mountain Sistersis their story.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4885-4
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Rosemary Radford Ruether

    This book by Helen Lewis and Monica Appleby about the Glenmary Sisters’ journey from religious order to community organization is both fascinating and historically important. It is a story that tells us a great deal about Catholic women in the last fifty years of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. It is simultaneously a Catholic story, an American story, and a women’s story. It illustrates the extraordinary encounter between these three realities of Catholicism, women, and American society in the context of the Appalachian Region and its people, culture, and struggle for dignity and economic well-being.

    As a...

  4. PREFACE: Why and How We Produced This Book
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxiv)

    This story is part of several larger stories. It is part of the history of the post–Vatican II revolution in Catholic religious life in America. It is part of the story of the sweeping change in private and public values that occurred in the 1960s. It is part of the story of what is now called the women’s movement. It is part of the history of American movements for social change and part of the history of a troubled region. But above all in these pages is the story of one remarkable group of individuals who came together, first...

    (pp. 1-2)

    A small middle-aged woman dressed in green, purple, and blue and wearing a purple hat steps onto the stage, carrying a split oak basket filled with bones.

    To the people assembled in front of her, she says, “I brought some Dungannon bones just to let you know I did get there.” She holds the basket of bones above her head and then lays them out on the stage, saying, “These are from the back of Chestnut Ridge Farm. If you walk on Chestnut Ridge Farm you will find bones. Here are some bones to set the scene.”

    Behind her hangs...

  7. Part 1: The Glenmary Years
    • Chapter 1 CHOOSING A LIFE
      (pp. 5-15)

      The Glenmary Sisters were organized in 1941 by William Howard Bishop, a priest in the Archdioceses of Baltimore-Washington who had founded the Glenmary order of priests and Brothers (Home Missioners of America) in 1937. He envisioned a complementary group of Sisters going out on mission to rural communities “to work for the extension of the Catholic faith and the spiritual advancement of the people in sections of America where there are few or no Catholics by means of Christian education, nursing, and social service, carried on by Sisters who, for the most part, are natives of the countries in which...

      (pp. 16-32)

      In the early days of the Glenmary Sisters, the training was both informal and sporadic. Their dreams of serving the poor were almost lost in the daily routine of housekeeping for the Glenmary priests. Their early training was developed by Father William Howard Bishop, who, at first, was the Sisters’ sole mentor and formation leader. He taught occasional classes and organized conferences. However, Archbishop McNicholas of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, who was a Dominican, intervened and asked the Dominican Sisters to develop a training program for the new order. It was his right to oversee the group since it was...

    • Chapter 3 GOING ON MISSION
      (pp. 33-50)

      For most of the women, desire to become a missionary was the reason they had joined Glenmary. The idea of going on mission sustained many of them through the difficult formation process. At the completion of the novitiate the Sisters took their vows. Subsequently the order would send some to obtain degrees in nursing, social work, or other disciplines related to their work, while routing others directly to mission sites. A few Sisters had some mission experience as postulants, but most did not go until after the novitiate.

      Some of Glenmary’s first mission sites were in parishes whose priests requested...

      (pp. 51-70)

      What the Glenmarys were doing in Chicago and Appalachia seemed decidedly unusual and threatening to the church hierarchy, which would mainly reveal itself to be of like mind with the bishop quoted in Michael Novak’sSaturday Evening Postarticle in chapter 3. The ears and eyes of Rome were vigilant. Reaction by the Sacred Congregation of Religious to the article prompted the U.S. apostolic delegate, Archbishop Vagnozzi, to write the archbishop several tart letters urging him to admonish the upstart congregation.³ First, the delegate insisted that the women should “observe the directives that have been given with regard to their...

    • Chapter 5 LEAVING GLENMARY
      (pp. 71-82)

      Following the March appointment of their “religious assistant,” the General Council met in April (with Father Becker duly in attendance) and “proposed that the Sisters consider seeking a change of status, perhaps becoming a lay organization, to make needed adaptations without undue delays and complications.” The large majority favored this plan.¹ The community conducted further consultation among its members, circulated a questionnaire, and held meetings to discuss the future and possible forms of an alternative organization with goals similar to those stated in the December General Chapter.²

      Some Sisters felt deserted and betrayed by the institution to which they had...

  8. Part 2: Forming FOCIS
    • Chapter 6 FOCIS: THE FIRST YEARS
      (pp. 85-99)

      In August 1967 at the Glenmary Center in Fayetteville, Ohio, the group solemnized their transition to the new organization. André Abecassis, freelance writer and photographer, photographed and wrote the following description of the commitment ceremony forAve Mariamagazine:

      Slowly the women rise and silently leave [the building] to gather again in the dusk outside. Softly they sing,

      Some people run, some people crawl,

      Some people don’t even move at all;

      Some roads lead forward, some roads lead back,

      Some roads are bathed in white,

      Some wrapped in fearful black

      and it comes out a hymn, filling the night with...

    • Chapter 7 MAJOR CHANGES
      (pp. 100-110)

      The first two years after the break with the Glenmary Sisters were busy, exciting, frustrating, and creative. Above all they were crowded with changes. One of the women observed, “Obedience went first, then chastity, and then poverty.”¹ Within a two-year period, many of the women were dating and some were married. In response, the group opened their ranks to men and non-Catholics. Its members also saw increased independence. Employed members were keeping the bulk of their wages, and some were living alone. Many were working for secular organizations or working ecumenically. Some members were attending secular schools and non-Catholic church...

      (pp. 111-126)

      After the reorganization in 1969, FOCIS members had to learn how to be a dispersed and mobile community of colleagues, friends, and sisters who would continue to give each other support.

      From the beginning, FOCIS members moved around trying to decide where they wanted to settle and often relocated where they could find work. Some who couldn’t find jobs in the economically depressed region had to leave. Personal choices like marriage and schooling drew others away, and some left because the communities where they lived and worked were too isolated to provide adequate support. For a significant number, FOCIS essentially...

      (pp. 127-144)

      In FOCIS’s second year, even as it was gravitating towards a new structure that would leave it without central staff, the organization initiated an ambitious and multi-faceted two-year program linking art to community development. Centrally planned but locally focused, FOCIS ARTS activities took place in Chicago, Cincinnati, and a number of locations in Appalachia during 1969. Members’ experiences from those projects accelerated their move to decentralize the organization and taught them new ways of working in communities. In various incarnations the arts program would continue into the 1980s as one of the most important strands of their work.

      FOCIS ARTS’s...

  9. Part 3: Working in Communities
    • Chapter 10 SOCIAL SERVICES
      (pp. 147-161)

      With the reorganization of FOCIS, the members developed a different way of working in community. They became a presence, a resource, a partner. They did not bring in projects; rather they brought skills, energy, ideas, commitment, and a network of friends and resources. They encouraged, taught, shared power and expertise, and helped develop local leadership. In this way they stimulated (and occasionally spearheaded) the creation of some of the region’s first community-based projects in the areas of health, arts and recreation, legal services, education, economic development, housing, and rural infrastructure. A number used their professional skills in schools, clinics, and...

      (pp. 162-177)

      Because FOCIS members lived in Appalachian communities, they were well situated to provide field study experiences for students from Catholic colleges who came to the region as volunteers. Earlier the Glenmary missions in Appalachia used college and high school students as volunteers in their summer work: helping with Bible schools, Headstart, and other projects which the Sisters organized first through the parishes and then through the OEO programs in which they were involved. As Appalachia made the news as the “poverty pocket” of the nation, student groups from other colleges and universities wanted to come to the mountains to help...

      (pp. 178-195)

      The first major economic development project by a FOCIS member was the Bread and Chicken House, a bakery-restaurant cooperative started by Catherine Rumschlag and a group of women from the Big Stone Gap–Appalachia area in 1971.

      While working with a local craft group, Catherine conceived the possibility of producing food products. Though talented at craft-making, the women were even more skilled at cooking and baking. With no bakery in town, Catherine envisioned putting the women’s skills to work filling what she felt would be a strong local market for baked goods. She recalled the origins of the cooperative:


      (pp. 196-212)

      FOCIS members moved naturally between social service work, advocacy, and social action, and often combined all three. Their early mission work with families quickly led them into social activism. Monica Appleby recalled the Sisters’ work with welfare rights as one of their earliest roles as “activists”:

      [As Glenmary Sisters] we were at odds with the welfare people. We would always be coming to the office with someone from the community who seemed to be in need of services they weren’t receiving, so we were a thorn in their sides. They didn’t like it that we interfered in their work, and...

  10. Part 4: Honoring and Trespassing Boundaries
    • Chapter 14 FOCIS AS CHURCH
      (pp. 215-231)

      Ritual and ceremony were important parts of life in the convent that were continued in FOCIS. However, the ceremonies became more experimental and participatory. Their liturgies evolved to include much more about community, the environment, their experiences, and friends. From their formation as a group, FOCIS members have held a special service at each of their meetings, and Anne Leibig has been the primary celebrant, leading the rituals and planning celebrations. Her poems “I Want to Be a Celebrant” and “I Am a Celebrant” express her long-held desire to fulfill this role and how she does it. In the following...

    • Chapter 15 JOURNEY NOT ARRIVAL
      (pp. 232-248)

      At the time the women left Glenmary and formed FOCIS, their actions were not seen—by themselves or others—as a feminist revolt of Catholic Sisters. Yet they chose to continue as a community of women, a community they had first joined to become “women of power” like the nuns they knew as teachers.

      Maureen Linneman recalled how Glenmary nurtured their potential:

      It’s almost like there’s a sociological path [in our history], where there has been an underground stirring for identity and meaningful work life among women. And in going into Glenmary, I think there was a new kind of...

  11. EPILOGUE: Religious Women Continue the Struggle
    (pp. 249-253)

    The Glenmary Sisters were prophetic voices in the 1960s when they took the decrees of Vatican II seriously. Early in the process Pope Pius XII voiced the conviction that “sisters could be a powerful force for the healing of the world if they shed the accretions that had left them an anomaly in current times.”¹ The Glenmary Sisters sought to make their work and the Catholic Church relevant to modern life. They confronted the hierarchy of the church and lost that battle, but they continued to build a way of working in community and established their own community of friends...

    (pp. 254-255)
  13. Appendices:
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 269-286)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 287-299)