Mountain Sisters

Although the temperature outside hovered in the low 30s, the stoked potbelly stove turned the make-shift classroom in the old railroad depot into a torrid July afternoon. A.L. rose to crack a few windows to avoid falling asleep during my lecture on the GDP deflator.

I was teaching a three-hour night class on economics in mid-winter accredited by a local community college, but arranged by the Dungannon Development Commision.

The deal was simple: the town of Dungannon, Va., had adults wanting further education, and the community college needed increased enrollment. Rather than a dozen students each driving nearly an hour to campus, the DDC got the college to send the teachers to Dungannon. In addition, the DDC’s education committee screened the teachers allowing only those sensitive to rural students and their needs to participate.

While the people of Dungannon took charge of their destiny, the inspiration for that empowerment came from the community development approach of Anne Leibig and other members of the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS). Part of the Dungannon story is told in a book recently published by The University Press of Kentucky, Mountain Sisters: From Convent to Community in Appalachia.

The original mountain sisters were Glenmary Sisters dedicated to the church’s mission in Appalachia. When disputes with church authorities over dress and rules hindered their freedom for mission, 44 left the convent in 1967 to form FOCIS. The book recounts that history, but more important, explains the way FOCIS members worked among mountain people in rural communities discovering and affirming the Appalachian culture while addressing certain social and economic obstacles along the way.

Their community development philosophy proved holistic, communal and alternative. They pioneered local ownership of health clinics in Appalachia with a non-profit structure, replacing the ineffective market driven model of physicians in private practice. These clinics addressed the broad community health issues besides offering individual medical treatment.

Truly listening to the needs of the area allowed FOCIS members to create structures alongside the local people. The direction was “doing with,” not “for.” They organized craft co-ops, a worker-owned restaurant, a sewing co-op, health clinics, a land trust, various educational and housing programs plus volunteer programs to serve Appalachia and to educate outsiders. The approach concentrated on developing human capital, home-grown industries and services meeting the needs of families within community.

“Development” included not just jobs, but education and human growth, the affirmation of community and respect for the land. Celebrations in art and music awakened whole communities, and numerous projects in education and legal services empowered women to face the patriarchal patterns of society at large.

Theologian Cornel West writes about a Socratic spirituality — the ability to think critically. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” All life begs a deeper look, so basically, examine the tacit assumptions and explanations of the dominate class. FOCIS people brought social and political analysis into their work. Hence, programs evolved from outrage to advocacy, from charity to justice, from service to social change.

The FOCIS approach never directly battled the medical, legal or educational establishments in rural areas, but by working with the local community FOCIS members developed alternative and supplemental programs.

Over the years FOCIS opened its membership beyond the original sisters. I joined in 1988. The FOCIS model of listening and service grows more essential today with government cut-backs and social indifference. The model also fits inner cities and oppressed communities, and not just the mountains.

(The FOCIS Development Fund benefits from each sale of Mountain Sisters when purchased from

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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