Mountain Sisters:
from Convent to Community in Appalachia

by Helen M. Lewis and Monica Appleby

University Press of Kentucky, 2003. ISBN 0813122686.
Reviewed by Sharon Wildwind
Posted on 06/10/2004

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Anthologies/Collections

In 1941, the Glenmary Sisters, part of the Home Missioners of America, were organized by a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore-Washington. The order's mission was to promote the Catholic faith and spiritual advancement in sections of America where there were few or no Catholics by means of Christian education, nursing, and social service.

Very young women-some as young as 17-came to the order expecting to serve Christ in home missions through a sisterhood of like-minded women. What they found instead was a poorly organized, poorly run group, in which they spent most of their time cooking, cleaning, and sewing for their founder and other priests.

Despite the lack of church support and, in some cases, outright opposition, the women went into the mission fields of the Appalachia mountains. In the early 1960s, areas of Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina were desperately poor. Mines, the only traditional employer, closed, leaving behind stripped land and sick people. There were no roads, no health care, no social services, and no jobs. The Glenmary Sisters were often the only people who provided any services. When mountain people left for factory jobs in places like Chicago, the nuns followed, setting up urban missions for the same people they had cared for in the mountains.

Frustrated by church restrictions and a sense that their missions weren't helping people to help themselves, forty-four women left the order in 1967 but remained together to form the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS).

This book is the story of their thirty-six year journey from 1967 to 2003 as the former nuns grew, reinvented their lives and moved through many organizational forms but never lost sight of their twin desires: to demonstrate God's love and to work within a sisterhood of like-minded women. Rich with interviews and personal recollections, it's a wonderful story of women making strong lives, then using that strength to work within a community. Their story is a beautiful example of the personal becoming the political.

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