Journal of Southern Religion

Lewis, Helen M. and Monica Appleby. Mountain Sisters, From Convent to Community in Appalachia. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2003. Reviewed by Howell Williams for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Mountain Sisters is a tale of women religious who re-imagined their call to ministry in rural Appalachia. Lewis and Appleby chronicle the story from the founding of the Glenmary Sisters (the Home Mission Sisters of America) in the early 1940s to 1967, when some women chose to dissociate from the order to establish their own non-profit organization called the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS). The account of the community after the founding of FOCIS illustrates how it became a network of enterprises that would reflect the dedicated life of service the women chose to live in a poverty-stricken region. The transformative moment in this experiment came with their disassociation from their religious vows and their drift from the oversight of the Catholic Church. Afterwards, FOCIS morphed into various shapes as it became a network that served both the individual and community. The story, which weaves accounts of social, religious, and individual ideological changes into a broader story of religious innovation, will appeal to persons interested in religious history, women's studies, and Appalachian studies.

". . . the stories told here intertwine a range of perceptions of Appalachian life with the voices of the individual women and the impressions of connections that constitute a community."  


Helen Lewis, an activist and retired Appalachian sociologist, and Monica Appleby, a former Glenmary Sister and the first president of FOCIS, compiled oral histories from former Glenmary Sisters and persons associated with FOCIS. As part of the writing process the contributors assembled at a series of retreats to read one another's stories and reflect on their work, and they considered the compiling and editing to be a "valuable theological process." Accordingly, storytelling is a key part of the book, and the stories told here intertwine a range of perceptions of Appalachian life with the voices of the individual women and the impressions of connections that constitute a community. It is a story of women who attempt to foster individuality while striving to maintain a sense of religious community.

Lewis and Appleby divide the narrative into four sections. Part One, "The Glenmary Years" explains why young women may have wanted to join the Glenmary Sisters, provides a history of the order, and addresses the tension between the introverted nature and rules of the order and the extroverted, action-oriented Appalachian ministries the women aspired to create. Conflict and negotiation are themes throughout the work, but are especially prominent in the discussion of these foundational years. Friction between the church hierarchy and the order intensified over the behavior of several Glenmary Sisters who took seriously the post-Vatican II resolutions that "the church was to be in solidarity with the world, actively working for and with the people." This section accordingly weaves the Glenmary Sisters' narratives together with observations on the changing social and cultural climate of the 1960s. We come to understand how and why, in 1967, 44 former Glenmary sisters launched FOCIS, a non-profit corporation for the often forgotten people of the rural mountainside, amongst a busy nation's increased attention to the women's rights movement, the environment, and severe racial problems.

However, the women of FOCIS planned "to continue a life of mutual sharing, celibacy, and communal service." Hoping to maintain the same patterns of obedience and service they practiced as members of the order, they soon learned that accomplishing these tasks would be impossible without the protection and support of the church. Part Two, "Forming FOCIS," frames the intense personal changes these women went through in order to just be "people," or women free of the habit, women who shopped for their own clothes, who supported themselves financially. The ideal of communal living imagined by the women became all but impossible. The FOCIS community dispersed due to the former sisters having distinct jobs and varying priorities. Their sudden life adjustments in some ways paralleled the changes that took place in the mountain villages in which they worked. Coal operators were replacing worn-out workers with new technology, reducing available housing benefits, and lessening what little sense of security the coalmining towns had. The structure of FOCIS changed too. Individual FOCIS members worked for a variety of organizations, and FOCIS did not merely provide for one group, but rather served as a network of support for many. Lewis and Appleby incorporate into the text poems, songs, and liturgy written by FOCIS members that illustrate the contagious spirit of ingenuity, resourcefulness, hope, and renewal of FOCIS, but also the feelings disappointment, anxiety, and frustration felt by individuals.

Part 3, "Working in the Communities," chronicles the many attempted, successful, and failed art programs, co-ops, educational centers, health clinics, and legal services began by FOCIS members. This broader story of the FOCIS network incorporates Protestants, community members, and a plethora of social service organizations. As the authors detail the web of social services, the reader understands that in the mountains where poverty is pervasive and malignant, determined FOCIS members dedicate their lives to understanding a complex region composed of inequalities.

The final section, "Honoring and Trespassing Boundaries," demonstrates how the former sisters have transcended what they consider the traditional, non-creative, and restrictive boundaries of the convent and religious hierarchy. In some ways FOCIS has become a church that provides a "theology of friendship and community." Members are free to develop their individual religious expressions, such as an evolving feminist consciousness or interest in Native American spirituality. Claiming themselves as members of the Catholic women's liberation movement, FOCIS members hope they have developed an organizational basis for resistance to social injustice. It is clear that these reformers still struggle with deeply rooted systems of prejudice and inequality, including a church patriarchy that refuses to address women's subjugation. Nevertheless, the authors of Mountain Sisters hope that FOCIS serves as a model of a religious community that "moved from a community of resistance to a community of support and friendship." Their bonds remain tight as they look forward to planning a retirement settlement that sustains interest in social justice issues in Appalachia. Optimistic that FOCIS can serve as a model for religious and social activism, the former Glenmary Sisters are confident that they have provided lessons for future generations.

The story concludes as the women are content in their collective experience of service. Less satisfying for the reader, however, is a repetitive narrative that is at times confusing due to the group writing effort and a subsequent exhausting web of organizational history. Lost in names and acronyms, the reader is left yearning for the voices of persons directly associated with FOCIS and the people claimed by FOCIS as part of its larger community. Further attention to the people who were affected by FOCIS--the voices of Appalachia--would have presented a richer story.

Howell Williams Florida State University

1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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