40 years later, challenges persist in ‘This Land’

Sister Janet Peterworth had already been an Ursuline sister for 20 years when she became aware in 1975 of the dire poverty of many Americans not far from her home. Her eyes were opened when she read a pastoral letter by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia — the name for a long swath of territory that stretches from upstate New York to the deep American South, 13 states in all, where dire poverty, poor health and inadequate education prevailed.

That historic letter was titled “This Land Is Home to Me,” and it was published 40 years ago this week.

Sister Janet was not alone. The document’s publication drew national attention, especially among Catholics, to the difficult circumstances lived daily by many people of the region.

Origins

The initial impetus for the letter came from two priests of Glenmary, a religious society dedicated to mission work in rural areas. Fathers Les Schmidt and John Barry began talking to bishops of the region, who were receptive to the idea. Some of them, such as Bishop Michael Begley of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Bishop Joseph Hodges of Charleston, West Virginia, became strong advocates of the project.

Fathers Schmidt, Barry and other leaders of an organization known as the Catholic Committee of Appalachia held dozens of community meetings in churches and homes throughout the region, soliciting input on what the document ought to say. Following these, the task of preparing a draft of the document was entrusted to Joe Holland, a lay theologian on the staff of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Concern. (Today he is professor of theology at St. Thomas University in Florida.)

“I showed Les Schmidt the first draft I wrote, and he threw it in the waste basket,” Holland told Our Sunday Visitor. “He told me to write something that people will understand.”

Holland went back to work, and the result was very different. Taking his inspiration from the poetic “Easy Essays” of Peter Maurin, who had co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, Holland prepared a text that was unusual for its poetic language and the free verse style in which it is written. That style remains one of the letter’s most memorable and distinctive attributes.

Ultimately, 26 bishops from across 13 states signed the pastoral letter. It was released on Feb. 1, 1975.

‘The truth of Appalachia’

The letter criticized the economic disparities and political powerlessness of the people of the region. It shined a light on the exploitation of residents by outside companies and business leaders, and it lamented the destruction of the region’s stunningly beautiful ecological resources, largely through aggressive coal mining practices.

pastoral letter

In the free verse style so distinctive of the letter, the bishops wrote:

“The truth of Appalachia
is a judgment upon us all,
making hard demands on us bishops,
as well as on others.
We know that there will be other opinions
about the truth of Appalachia
other views than those of the poor.
But we must remind ourselves
that the poor are special
in the eyes of God.”

Addressing the economic exploitation of the region, the letter noted:

“There is a saying in the region
that coal is king.
That’s not exactly right.
The kings are those who control big coal,
and the profit and power
which come with it.”

Call to service

“This Land Is Home to Me” had an immediate impact. One of its clearest results was a significant increase in the number of religious sisters in the region. Many religious communities from all over the country sent members to live among, help and teach the poorest of its people. Sister Janet was one of them.

“I had been raised in Louisville,” Sister Janet told OSV, “but until I read that letter, I didn’t know there were places in this country, just five hours’ drive away, where there wasn’t fresh water to drink. No one ever talked about that. Reading ‘This Land Is Home to Me’ hit me hard, and I said, ‘I need to go there. I need to learn about this.’”

Sister Janet
Sister Janet

And she went.

She spent the summer of 1975 serving poor people living in Morgantown, West Virginia. She returned for a full year in 1977, following a devastating flood that hit the same city. Then in 1993, she moved with another sister of her community to Mingo County, West Virginia, where the two founded a pair of nonprofit agencies. They both retired from their roles there in 2009, but the agencies they founded remain and continue to help. Today, Sister Janet serves as president of the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville. Many religious sisters in the region, now reaching retirement age, have spent the past four decades there, providing food and clothing to the needy, teaching students in poor schools and advocating for effective economic and cultural development.

‘Caught off guard’

But the letter’s influence has not waned. It seems that 40 years later, almost anyone working in any area of Catholic ministry or education in the region know its contents well. One of them is Elizabeth Collins, a lay woman and director of the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. Collins said the institute, founded in 2002 to promote research, service and advocacy for and with the region’s residents, sees “This Land Is Home to Me” as its foundational document.

For instance, the institute organizes 25 immersion service trips to Appalachia every year from high schools and colleges around the country. As part of the experience, Collins has students read and reflect upon the letter.

“We often have them read the text without telling them when it was written,” she said in an OSV interview. “What we find is that its relevance to circumstances in the region still today is striking. They think it was just written. In some ways, that’s very sad.”

Though she was born 12 years after the letter was published, Collins said reading it had a strong impact on her. “When I first read it, I wasn’t even sure I would like it. But I found that I thought I was reading poetry. It caught me off guard. I loved it,” she said.

It is a sentiment shared now by two generations of readers.

Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99).

'At Home in the Web of Life'
The following is an excerpt from “At Home in the Web of Life,” published in 1995 and subtitled: “A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of ‘This Land is Home to Me’ from the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia.”