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  Mountain Mission

Marie Cirillo is still a Sister to the Land and its People

by Matthew T. Everett

The high ridges of the Cumberland Mountains rise on either side of the small valley in Clairfield, Tennessee, where Marie Cirillo has worked as a community activist and organizer for more than 30 years. It's already past 11 a.m. on a warm day in early October, but the sun has just begun to rise above a stand of trees across from the small house that serves as her office.

The diminutive 71-year-old Cirillo, a Brooklyn native and former Catholic nun, is out on the patio, wearing a multi-colored fleece sweatshirt and blue jeans, with worn brown leather shoes. Her gray hair is cut sensibly short, and a pair of reading glasses hangs on a loop around her neck.

"I've been extremely busy," Cirillo sighs, sitting up straight in a plastic lawn chair on the patio outside the house, her hands folded in her lap and her tiny feet flat on the ground. Her Brooklyn accent is still strong after more than three decades in Appalachia.

In the past few months, Cirillo's work as an advocate for the people of the surrounding communities has taken her to New York and Nashville. She's taken computer classes, edited and published a twice-monthly newsletter, and coordinated visits from college students to work with Appalachian communities. She's served on the board of directors for the Woodland Community Land Trust, which holds 300 acres of nearby property for conservation and low-income housing; and she's trying

to start the Eagan Community Institute as an educational and informational center for contemporary Appalachian culture.

She's been doing these things since she moved to Clairfield in 1967. When she arrived here, the population had dwindled from more than 12,000 people before the Depression to 1,200, and jobs were scarce. Jobs are still hard to find, and most people in Clairfield must drive at least as far as Jellico, about 20 miles away, for work in construction or as day laborers. Poverty is rampant—the landscape around Clairfield is dotted with dilapidated trailers, broken-down cars, dogs, and satellite dishes. But through Cirillo's influence, residents from three nearby counties—Campbell and Claiborne counties in Tennessee, and Bell County in Kentucky, parts of which form the Clearfork Valley—have formed a non-profit corporation, the Clearfork Collaborative, to encourage sustainable economic development and cultural preservation among a population that only consists of less than 100 families. They also created the land trust in 1979, and since 1989 have made it available for affordable housing in an area where property is largely owned by timber and coal companies. In a bigger sense, the people of the Clairfield have begun to reclaim the land around them from the ravages of mining and timber harvesting.

"There are certain things—hospitals, the airport, the sidewalks—that people feel they have a right to in Knoxville," she says. "What would happen here is that other people feel they have a right to the land over the people whose families have lived here for years."

When she's asked about her contributions, Cirillo shrugs. "There needs to be more of a push for this area to grow in ways that will help Appalachia," she says. "I think I'm doing what I can. If it's meant to grow, it will."

It's the renewed sense of self-determination, more than the land trust and the affordable homes themselves, that may be Cirillo's lasting legacy to this small pocket of Appalachia.

Building and Rebuilding

Ben Gibson was born 10 miles from Clairfield, in a small town just across the Kentucky border. He lived in a house on the side of a tree-covered ridge on the Woodland Land Trust, a few miles away from Marie Cirillo's office, for almost nine years, before it was destroyed in a fire on Aug. 19. Now, on a cold morning in November, he's sifting through the rubble, trying to salvage cinder blocks from the foundation for when he begins rebuilding next year.

Gibson, now retired from a series of blue-collar jobs, has on a black baseball cap, one with a tall stiff front like truckers wear, and white-blonde hair hangs down over the collar of his heavy denim jacket. A charred picnic table Gibson had finished building only days before the fire sits just beyond the foundation of the house.

"It was a beautiful place," he says matter-of-factly. "We had it just the way we wanted it, after nine years.

"That place where we are now doesn't have any frontage," he continues, pointing to the brown house on a smaller, adjoining lot—also a part of the land trust—where he and his wife, Linda, have been staying since the fire. Behind him, his former front yard, covered with dead leaves, slopes down, away from the road behind him, to a valley floor. He points out a peach tree near the driveway that he planted when he and Linda moved in.

Inside the brown house where the couple now live, Linda Gibson is watching her two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter, Sarah.

"The house caught fire in the middle of the night, while we were sound asleep," she says. "Our youngest daughter woke up at 3 a.m. We thought the fan in the living room had caught fire, but it started in the back bedroom. They'd been using this house as a guest house, but we were fortunate that it was empty at the time."

Linda was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. That's where she met and married Ben. But he wanted to return to the place where he was born, and the couple moved back, prompted by their landlord in Ohio, in 1992. "They sold the house we were renting right out from under us," Linda says. "My husband wanted to come back here, and I had always wanted to be close to nature. I'm a Taurus, the Bull, and we're close to the earth. There's something in my heart that wants to be near woods and nature."

On the Woodland Land Trust, they were able to get a 99-year lease on the property and a low-interest mortgage on the small house. Linda Gibson recognizes that Marie Cirillo's presence in the area has, to a great extent, made their life on the land trust possible. "She's very dedicated to the land," Linda says. "She's tenacious and compassionate, and she cares a lot about the people here."

The Gibsons had no insurance on the house that burned, so when they start to rebuild, they're effectively starting all over again. But Linda Gibson is convinced that she and her husband are starting new in a better place than they were 10 years ago.

"Living in nature's different," she says. "There's a lot of hard work involved. We have to chop fire wood, and deal with the roads in winter. Sometimes we're stuck here for 10 or 12 days at a time. And you have to know how to survive without electricity and water. But we got out of the system. It's hard, but I wouldn't trade it for five times our income."

Gaining a Rural FOCIS

Marie Cirillo was born in Brooklyn in 1929. Both of her parents had come to New York from small rural communities—her father from a small village in Italy, and her mother from a town in Kentucky. Every summer as a child, Cirillo and her two sisters visited their mother's family in Kentucky. "I think I picked up my mother's love of the land," she says.

There were other lessons from her mother during the Great Depression. "As a child, I don't remember anybody ever asking us for money," Cirillo says. "But people would ask for food, and I never saw her turn anyone away. My father was always upset about that."

At 19, Cirillo became one of the first members of the Glenmary Missionary Sisters, a new Catholic order founded in 1948 to minister to the growing population of Appalachian migrants in large northern cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit. Cirillo and her fellow sisters visited small mountain towns in Kentucky and Tennessee, and then she moved to Chicago, where she immediately developed relationships with recent Appalachian transplants.

"When I went there, we were the only friends many of those people had," she says. "From having been in Kentucky and Tennessee, it felt like they immediately had a friend. We had totally different relationships with them than other people there had."

Besides the profound cultural shock of moving from small, isolated mountain communities to large metropolitan areas, Appalachian migrants faced other difficulties. "For one thing, most of them came up with no money," Cirillo says. "Even if they found a job, it was two weeks before they got paid. If they didn't have friends or family to stay with, it could be very hard. I remember that many of them would go to the blood bank to sell blood, just to have money until they got paid. For men who didn't know how to read—they must have had nerves of steel to get on a train or find a job. There were a lot of divorces. I had a sense that for the most part it was the men who wanted to go home; the women had electricity and running water and didn't have to work as hard as they did here...It was a tremendous thing, just getting up there. It was hard. It was hard."

By the 1960s, the migrations from Appalachia had slowed, and the Glenmary sisters made more frequent trips down to the mountains.

"We still had to wear our long habits and veils," she says. "It was a handicap when we came into the mountains. They weren't used to seeing these strange creatures walking around...One time, there was a family getting out of their car, and there was a kid with them. He was scared when he saw me, and I thought, 'God almighty! Why are we doing this?'"

In 1967, Cirillo and a dozen other Glenmary sisters recognized that the poverty and powerlessness in Appalachia required more immediate, direct attention. With the blessing of the Church—which still supports Cirillo with a small stipend every year through the Diocese of East Tennessee—they took off their habits and left the order to form the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS). The members of FOCIS wanted to bring economic development to depressed mountain towns hurt by the loss of coal mining jobs in the '60s and '70s.

"We wanted to continue the work we had been doing, so it was a difficult decision," Cirillo says. "When I experienced it, I thought, 'This is what a divorce feels like.' When you spend 18 years with a group you think you're going to spend the rest of your life with, and then all of a sudden walk away from that, it's hard."

The Glenmary Sisters dissolved after the departure, but the members of FOCIS moved into rural East Tennessee and Kentucky to begin community development work and encourage social justice. Cirillo moved to Clairfield in 1967 and has become something of a local institution.

"They were nervous, I think, about Catholics moving in," Cirillo says. "But I've never really tried to push anything Catholic. In some ways I run more of a risk of losing my job with the church than I do of alienating these people."

Until this year, Cirillo lived in the house that she now uses as her office. Now, she stays in a red, one-room, 13-by-21 foot house about a mile away, next to the old school that the Clearfork Collaborative is turning into a community center. The house is tastefully furnished and immaculately clean on the inside, but from the outside it resembles the cabin where Henry David Thoreau spent two years on the shore of Walden Pond. Cirillo says she's relieved to be able to go home every day to get away from her work, if only for a few hours.

There's really no typical day for Cirillo. She usually gets up early, at 5 or 6 a.m., and spends some time thinking and planning her day. She spends part of at least two days a week on the collaborative's newsletter. On Mondays, she holds a lunch meeting on economic development and independence for area women, and she meets on alternate Tuesdays with the Forest Listening Circle, an advisory committee to the Woodland Land Trust.

On occasion, when she feels it's necessary, she'll reveal her rabble-rouser side. She's outraged that the mountains around her are becoming filled with vacation homes for the wealthy, while the people near her struggle to find a place to live. "I want people to say that nobody gets two houses before everyone has one house," she says. "If they keep making land available for them, it will raise land taxes here and make it that much harder for the people who live here. There may be some construction jobs through it, but what kind of jobs are left when it's done? I don't want to negate that kind of progress. But the way that money's unfairly distributed makes us angry."

For Cirillo, getting land away from corporations and back to the people who live on it is essential to improving conditions in poor rural Appalachia. "Somehow land reform has to be a part of it," she says. "It doesn't have to be the government taking it away...Here we like to imagine that we get firewood from the land, that we grow food on the land. But the thing that's most offensive to us is that we can't get access to all the lands that are around here...You know the story about giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish? Giving him a fish is giving him a welfare check; teaching him to fish is teaching him how to get a job, save money, whatever. But the other thing they have to learn up here is how to get access to the water before they can learn how to fish."

Gaining Ground a Bit at a Time

Trains hauling coal and trucks carrying felled timber from high up in the mountains are common sights on and along the winding treacherous highways between Interstate 75 and Clairfield. The mines and timber companies offer the only real jobs in the area, other than gas stations and restaurants near the interstate.

The land trust not only provides affordable housing; it also preserves a small part of the land surrounding Clairfield from the rampant development of outside corporations. Of the 320 acres supervised by the trust, 30 acres are designated for housing for 20 families (17 families now live on the property), with the rest dedicated to conservation. Most of the property was acquired from the old Blue Diamond Coal Company, which was once the most prominent industry in the area. The trust is funded through a combination of private donations and grants from several charitable and community-interest foundations: the Coalition on Religion in Appalachia, the Appalachian Community Fund and the Bonner Foundation.

There's also, as a subsidiary of the land trust, a fledgling development corporation that matches investments made by members. Though the context is different, the model is similar to community development efforts made in depressed inner cities: participants start a savings account at a bank in Jellico, then meet regularly in small groups for credit counseling and savings strategies. Every dollar invested is matched by the development corporation, through its foundation funding and private donations.

In addition to the land trust, Cirillo was instrumental in the establishment of the Clearfork Collaborative in the 1980s. Collaborative members attend Claiborne County Commission meetings, try to raise funds for economic development, with Cirillo's help, through government grants, and coordinate visits from students at Knoxville's Webb School and Union College in Kentucky.

"Marie's really tried to help protect the land so that the people up there won't be used and left behind with nothing," says J. Vann Johnston Jr., chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville. Johnston visited Clairfield to work with Cirillo in the late 1980s, when he was in seminary. "She's a Christian witness up there. She's trying to make sure that forces beyond the local people's control are kept in check and that all those God-given resources aren't exploited to the detriment of the people."

The operation of the land trust itself has also given local residents a sense of empowerment. While Cirillo's presence is apparent in nearly every aspect of the trust—and essential to its continued support—much of the day-to-day management of the program is handled by land trust tenants themselves. Residents work part-time in the land trust office and serve on its board of directors.

Danielle Curatin has lived on the trust property for five years, and for most of that time she has been president of the trust's board of directors and manager of its transitional housing section, a small collection of old trailers that serve as emergency housing for those awaiting a permanent location.

"My daughter and son-in-law wouldn't be able to own their own home without the land trust," Curatin says. "There aren't any jobs around here. It gives people a chance to be able to own their own home, and have gardens. I can and freeze what I don't need and give it away. It's like a big family. We can have chickens and rabbits. Just about everybody has a garden. The land trust has been something that's really helped this community, and it's helped people reach out."

Claiming and Reclaiming What's Rural

Just a few hundred feet from Curatin's trailer, on top of a small wooded rise, the front yard of Tina and Ron Seymour's rental house is littered with what looks like junk: piles of cinder blocks, strips of lumber, tools and wheelbarrows and bags of gravel and sand.

The Seymours have collected all this in the past few months to build a house of their own in Clairfield, on 1.2 acres they bought from Tina's grandmother for $750. The lumber was left over from a timber company where Ron works as a night watchman. They bought the cinder blocks from the site of a demolished building in Jellico, where Tim also works during the day as a laborer. They gathered the bags of sand from a nearby creek and sifted it themselves.

"We're doing it with native materials," Tina says. The land trust encourages home builders to use available resources from the surrounding mountains and to recycle what they can.

"We didn't have the money when we wanted to start building. There's a lot of labor. But it beats paying someone to do it."

She and her husband hope to start construction in the spring, using their income tax refund to pay for linoleum and carpet.

Inside the house where they now live, Tina is boiling hot dogs and eggs for lunch for her two children and two of their cousins. The back door is open, and one of the boys heads out onto the back steps before Tina pulls him back into the kitchen.

With only the slightest hint of exaggeration, Tina says the land trust has already saved her from going to prison. "We were living in LaFollette. This guy broke into our home and stole all of our furniture, and I watched him unload it two doors down from us," she says. "I went over there, and then the cops came and told me to go back inside. I talked to a lawyer, but he was asking $100 an hour. It would have cost more to get a lawyer than all that stuff was worth. Honestly, I was going to shoot the guy who stole it. The only way around that was to find another place up in here, and this was the only place we could find."

She's straightforward about the difficulties of living in the mountains. "It's rough living up here," she says. "All the jobs are so far off, and it's real hard in the winter getting back and forth. But at least we don't have to live in the city with a bunch of people bothering you."

A few miles up the winding mountain highway from Marie Cirillo's office, in the unincorporated town of Eagan, next to Cirillo's house, there's a two-story red brick building with a new, bright blue roof and clear new windows. The building was a school for the children of miners when the property was owned by the Blue Diamond Coal Company. It's now owned by the Clearfork Collaborative, and they're trying to turn it into the Eagan Community Institute. Land trust residents and college student volunteers have contributed most of the labor for the renovations that have already been completed. But there's still much to do.

"If I can ever get the time, I'd like for us to take all these community efforts and really start working on what programs and building needs we have here," Cirillo says. "Our great desire is to package it so that we can hire local contractors during the winter months, when they have a hard time finding jobs."

Once it's completed—Cirillo hopes it will be open next year—the institute is intended to serve as a resource and gathering place for locals, to hold dances and parties and to find out about the land trust, about new jobs, about the land trust's economic development programs. It's also supposed to encourage a new economic model, based on the available local resources, that builds on the strength of rural life rather than urban industrialization.

Cirillo also envisions the institute as an educational tool for activists and organizers throughout Appalachia.

"The Eagan Center should really be here to serve local people, but also people outside of here," she says. "If the institute is to be a place to learn something about community-based organizations, all the communities around here should be part of that effort...As more and more of the world turns urban, it needs to be reinterpreted to allow both lifestyles to exist."

November 23, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 47
© 2000 Metro Pulse