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Mother Teresa's nuns return to her rural Kentucky mission

Posted at 3:50 PM, Dec 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-24 15:50:53-05

JENKINS, Ky. (AP) — They came in old cars and on foot.

One woman powered an electric wheelchair up the steep road with a dog on her lap. A man inched downhill slowly on a riding lawnmower, outfitted with baskets.

By early afternoon Saturday, more than 80 Letcher County residents lined up outside an unassuming house overlooking the once-booming coal town of Jenkins, tucked into the shadow of the Cumberland Mountains on the Virginia border.

Three daughters of poor Indian rice farmers, cloaked in the signature white and blue-striped saris of Mother Teresa’s religious order — known for serving the poorest of the poor — handed out bags of Christmas ham, biscuits and groceries.

After an absence of several years, the small contingent of Missionaries of Charity nuns recently returned to reside at the remote Appalachian outpost — continuing the legacy of providing spiritual and physical aid that began when Mother Teresa visited in 1982.

It was the first rural mission she opened in rural America, and it remains one of the religious order’s few rural U.S. missions. In an area of Kentucky still counted one of America's poorest regions, the needs seem only to have deepened.

The four sisters who live in the convent, and refer to their leader as “Mother,” spend each day in remote hollers visiting the poor, sick, elderly, addicted or isolated, offering to wash dishes, cut grass, bring food, fix a heater, find a nursing home or pray and talk.

“We cried when they left,” said Charlene Cornett, a local resident. “And now we’re celebrating that they’re back.”

Weeks before Christmas, a nun named Sister Janita, barely 5 feet tall, eased out of a car, followed by Sister Shikha and Sister Emerita.

They picked their way past an old truck and scattered debris to the door of a ramshackle trailer perched along a remote creek.

Inside, the room was coated with smoke from a broken coal-and-wood stove. They greeted two older women who sat in the dark on recliners near a thinly patched hole in one wall. A Maury Povich rerun flickered on a big-screen TV.

“Hello,” Sister Janita said in a sing-song cadence. "How are you doing?"

They sat down and began chatting. Were they staying warm? Getting medication? Enough to eat? Sister Janita, who has served in houses in Little Rock, Memphis and Chicago, listened intently.

“Egg sandwiches for the past two weeks,” said resident Pam Miller. ”And last night, egg noodles and hamburger meat. But we’re about to run out.”

After praying for relief from thyroid and gout illnesses, Miller said the nuns had been a critical lifeline in a remote area where help is difficult to reach. They'd brought food, paid her husband's funeral bill, fixed cars and patched up the home over the years.

Back in the car, in between joking and laughing with each other, the sisters lean in and talk in Indian-accented murmurs about her troubles, trying to figure out new ways to help.

Many of the people they visit can't reach larger towns with social services, some struggling in isolation in abject poverty, said the Rev. Rob Adams, a Catholic priest who works in Jenkins part of each week.

"People don't realize. … In some of the places these sisters go way out in the county, (residents) drink coal mine runoff water that has an orange color to it, and they’ve spliced electricity from the power lines,” he said.

The women are among more than 5,000 sisters in 120 countries including about 50 homes in the U.S., mostly in cities such as New York, Dallas and San Francisco. The women serve at a site for a few years before being rotated elsewhere.

Like all the nuns, the sisters rise at 4:40 a.m. in their sparse home, where a photo of the saint looks down from the wall.

The rest of the day's schedule is prescribed: Pray. Serve the poor. Pray. Attend mass. Serve the poor. Cook dinner. Sleep. Repeat.

Like others, the Jenkins sisters have taken a vow of poverty. They aren't paid and live with few modern conveniences, save for a Nissan SUV to reach people.

That means no cell phones, no internet, no television, no washing machines and no air conditioning. They don't get a newspaper or eat at the local Hardees, one of the few area restaurants.

They say they don't mind. Poverty, as Mother Teresa once said, can be freeing.

"People keep constantly …” said Sister Shikha, making phone-scrolling motions with her hands. “Nobody talking to each other. … I’m so grateful to Mother."

They wash by hand and hang-dry each of their three saris, some of their few personal belongings (two for daily use and one for special occasions), whose blue stripes stand for vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The rules also require them to attend mass daily. Because there’s no longer a full-time priest in Jenkins, that means driving to nearby towns to find a Catholic church, including traveling over the mountains to Virginia.

They can only call family in India once a month and visit home every 10 years.

It's a life of simplicity and service that Sister Janita said has never given her second thoughts.

“We’re not normal people,” she said last week, cracking a smile.

To get to the town of about 2,000 people, it’s a dizzying ride on two-lane roads that wind through Letcher County’s mountains, south from Hazard past towns such as Sassafrass, Happy and Jeff.

Nestled on Elkhorn Creek at the foot of Pine Mountain, Jenkins was built by the Consolidated Coal Co., which in 1911 purchased 100,000 acres that sprawled across three counties to power industry and railroads.

Named after a Baltimore banker, it reportedly reached a peak population of 10,000 in the 1930s, when the company ran its own stores, school, funeral home and hospital.

But by the 1950s and 1960s, coal mining was declining, and Bethlehem Steel, which later took it over, closed production in 1988.

By the early 1980s, Kentucky’s Covington diocese invited Mother Teresa’s order to minister in Appalachia, settling on Letcher County as a forgotten and needy place but also one that had a Catholic church built by the coal company to attract Irish and German workers.

By then, Mother Teresa, an Albanian nun known as the “Saint of the Gutters" who had founded a new Roman Catholic order to help "the poorest of the poor," had already won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her work from Kolkata, India, helping orphans, lepers and the poor had spread to other countries.

She visited Jenkins for the first time in 1982 to mark the opening of the convent at 44 Cove Ave., a street that once housed top coal company founders. Accompanying her were state police officers, reporters and local officials.

"Wherever the sisters go they become the sunshine of God's love, the hope of eternal happiness and the burning faith of God's love. Wherever they go that is all I pray for,” she told reporters when the house was opened.

At first, some locals were put off by their Indian accents, saris and reputations for working with the “poorest of the poor," saying, “We’re not poor, we don’t need help," said Chris Ware of Lexington, who has been traveling to volunteer in Jenkins for decades.

When Mother Teresa visited Kentucky again six years later, Ware and his wife, Denise, joined her on a donated four-seater prop plane to fly from Lexington to Jenkins.

On the way, she fed their young child raisins, Ware recalled recently in Jenkins. She later wrote to them a note saying in part, "Works of love are works of peace."

Mother Teresa died in 1997, but the mission carried on even as economic conditions improved little.

That included coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky. In the first quarter of 2019, 3,959 miners were working Eastern Kentucky, a precipitous fall from 15,147 a decade earlier, according to state figures.

The area has borne the brunt of other forces, too, including a rural opioid epidemic.

Since 2010 in Jenkins, per-capita incomes have fallen and the population has dropped nearly 11% to 21,889. Letcher County poverty rates have climbed in recent years and now sit at 31%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Talk of adding industrial parks and reinvigorating the area has gone on for decades, to little avail.

Several years ago the order opted to relocate the sisters to Lexington to help local Hispanic residents in need, visiting Jenkins intermittently and on weekends. But this fall they returned because of the needs.

“We have to be where the poorest people are. Mother saw how poor Jenkins was, and the people were so warm and open to the sisters, so we needed to be there,” said Sister Jonathan, the order's regional superior overseeing Kentucky.

The 81-year-old woman wasn’t answering the door. The sisters fanned out around the ramshackle home, peering in windows and knocking on the siding to call her name.

Finally, Jeanne Brewer came out and invited them inside, explaining that her space heater had broken and she was keeping warm in a small room by using a hand-held hairdryer.

“Would you like a heater?” Janita asked, before reciting the Lord’s Prayer and piling back into the car.

They drove to another home, where resident Diane Johnson was healing on a sofa recovering from injuries after she was struck by a car. She spoke slowly of seizures, crying spells and a shattered arm.

“They take care of me. They always have. I owe them my life,” she said.

Sister Shikha, who is originally from Nagaland, a mountainous state in northeast India, bordering Myanmar, said she's glad they are back full time.

“We wanted to come back here because people need more help,” she said.

Their important role in Letcher County was evident a few days before Christmas when volunteers from Tennessee and Lexington filled a St. George Catholic Church social hall, its tables packed with area residents eating Little Caesars Pizza and doughnuts.

Sister Janita helped usher a line of children to a man playing Santa on the small stage as family snapped photos. Sister Shikha held babies and talked.

Afterward, they walked to the convent, where the line that began hours earlier now stretched along the porch and up the hill. Inside were more than 90 country hams, biscuits and grocery bags filled with cereal, canned goods and noodles, with bags of toiletries and toys.

“How many in your family?” a volunteer asked each person.

“I got one brother,” a man replied, before being handed several bags of food.

"Thank you, doll," he said. “Merry Christmas.”

First in line was James Frye, a disabled man who lives with his disabled mother. He said he was glad the sisters were back helping locals again.

“We wouldn’t have nothing for Christmas if it wasn’t for them," he said.

Nearby in an electric wheelchair, Lillia Wright, 57, said the sisters had helped her since her husband, a coal miner, died of “tummy cancer.”

She was planning to eat her ham next to her tree at Christmas with her dog, Juicy Fruit, who shivered on her lap.

She held onto plastic bags of the food, said her goodbye and motored back down the steep hill. As the crowd began to dissipate, the sisters went inside to pray.

Tomorrow, there would be more to do.