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Cirillo is the Mother Teresa of Appalachia

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By Natasha LaFayette

natasha@lafollettepress.com  

From New York City to the mountains of Appalachia, Marie Cirillo has spent her life helping the poor.

Originally from Brooklyn, NY., Cirillo recalls spending her childhood summers in central Kentucky.

“With mother and all the children we came to grandma’s, just a little hilly,” said Cirillo of her fond childhood memories.

Her grandfather had a farm and the family would can food.

“He was a church goer, and he ran a little bank in town,” said Cirillo. “So often in the summer, people would come to the house and he would sit on the swing on the porch, it was nice and I was attracted to rural life compared to Brooklyn.”

When Cirillo was 19, she decided to join the Glen Mary Home Mission Sisters of America, working in the rural south.

“That was in 1947. I was with them for 18 years and I had various mission experiences in Appalachia, none in Tennessee,” said Cirillo.

She recalls the great out migration where three million people left the coalfield areas of Appalachia to move north for employment.

“Three million is a lot,” Cirillo said. “And we saw a lot of young people leaving, many of them not even working age.”

The Glen Mary Sisters opened houses in Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit to help those who moved to the area from the south.

“It was during that time when there were a lot of changes in the church. We had a pope at the time who was saying, ‘Open the windows and get some fresh air, it’s time for change-catch up with the world’.” That was during the 1960s and Cirillo found she was encouraged by the country’s willingness to help the poor.

“It was also a time when our country was enthused about change, we were going to have this war on poverty and we were going to make everybody happy,” said Cirillo as she laughed.

“I was particularly caught up with the Kennedy and Johnson people who were concerned about empowering the poor,” said Cirillo. “Cause that’s how it was going to happen.”

In 1967, 44 of the devoted nuns in the Glen Mary Mission, including Cirillo, left the order and organized a group called the Federation of Communities in Service.

“Our commitment now as lay people without the support of the church was to live in some community in Appalachia and try to work in the community where we lived,” said Cirillo. “At the time we were quite convinced that knowing the people was what it was going to take to change our lives. We switched from the old time church missionary thing of converting people to letting them convert us.”

The new mission of these ladies was to change the their mindset and Cirillo said

after 40 years in Clairfield, being with the people in the community has effectively changed her mindset.

“Now we are in this mood of change again, and I just want to scream out hey folks if you want to get a different perspective of what America is all about then listen to the poor,” said Cirillo.

Cirillo said living with the poor has given more insight about life then science, technology and Harvard degrees can give.

One of Cirillo’s first missions in Clairfield was to help the people get what they needed in the community. She said people who are oppressed often fight back, and her mission in the area has been to ask the people what they want to fight for.

“What is it you think you need in this community that you can do something about, and then I would help them mobilize around a non-profit corporation,” said Cirillo.

“In my first 10 years in this area there were four groups that felt like they needed medical help, so there were four clinics set up,” said Cirillo. “And that was the beginning of four groups of adults just depending on themselves to find their money, find their land, find their doctors and organize themselves,”

Cirillo continued to help provide needed things from a factory to children’s activities.

Though the people of Clairfield were accepting of health care and jobs coming to the area, the development of the community land trust baffled many people.

The response of a land trust, a communal place to live owned by a non-profit, was strangely accepted by the people but within time land was acquired and was used to build homes on for local families. The land is separated into lots for housing and communal land for gardens or other designated purposes such as community centers.

Cirillo still lives on the land trust created many years ago. It started when she began to ask the people why their neighbors had left the area. The out migration was in part because the coal companies supplied not only employment to the area but also land, stores and schools.

They were much like the government in the unincorporated areas, explained Cirillo.

“They took care of us because they needed us, but when they didn’t need us they didn’t take care of us and then there was no land to take care of ourselves,” said Cirillo.

Among the land obtained by the land trust was the Clairfield institute on 12 acres in 1997. After 10 years of owning the old school, the Woodland Community Land Trust has made some progress in remodeling the school with the help of volunteers. However, many of the rooms, designated for use by the community, are unfinished and awaiting donations and volunteers to be completed.

The Woodland Community Land Trust currently holds about 450 acres in different parcels. The largest parcel of land is over 100 acres and the smallest is 14. There are 21families living on the trust, each with one acre. There are also four large gardens on the land and individual families have smaller gardens.

“It’s truly a people movement of returning the land to the people,” said Cirillo of the support by those who believe in the overall goals of these communities.

The homes built on the land trust are mortgaged by the homeowners and belong to them, but the land is provided under a lifetime renewable lease.

On the land Cirillo lives on, the families are using the community land to teach the children gardening and sharing skills.

“If something like this could just get hold in Appalachia, then families could grow up and appreciate life,” said Cirillo about being valued by society because of these beliefs. “I hope I can stay here the rest of my life.”