Franciscan sisters minister in rural Kentucky
It’s an hour drive to see a movie or eat at a fast food restaurant. But, the things most of us take for granted pale in comparison to the joy Franciscan Sisters (Tiffin) Marge Eilerman and Angie Kiel find through their ministry among the marginalized in Owsley County in eastern Kentucky.
The sisters live in a trailer next to a log cabin church, which serves as the worship space for Holy Family Parish, comprised of just 16 families.
“We’re in the most beautiful spot in the world,” said Sister Marge, who is originally from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “People say it’s so peaceful. Behind our trailer is an open field.”
Sister Marge arrived in this idyllic setting in 1986, after serving in a neighboring county. “The pastor at the time invited us to bring the Catholic church to this community. It was a very small county then, only about 5,000 people,” she said.
Her ministry was definitely a challenge initially, noted Sister Marge. “People were uncomfortable, or even afraid, at the thought of become part of the Catholic Church. We did a lot of visiting just to be present to the people and build relationships with them.”
Sister Angie, from the Toledo diocese, joined Sister Marge at the parish in 2010. “I had visited Marge 10 years before and felt drawn to live among the poor,” she explained.
Through collaboration with other faith communities and reaching out to the entire community, not just Catholics, the sisters have gained the trust and respect of the locals. They also receive support from Sacred Heart Parish in McCartyville in the Cincinnati archdiocese, for which they grateful.
“We minister to all the people in the county. It’s one of the poorest in the United States,” Sister Marge said. “Much of the population we serve is on a fixed income, and the nearest hospital is 26 miles away. We assist with food, utility bills, home repairs. The need that we hear about the most is financial, but underneath that is the need for someone to listen, to give a hug.”
Both sisters say it’s been incredibly rewarding to see the faith of the people grow and strengthen over the years in an area where Catholic presence is still relatively new. Each Saturday evening after Mass, parishioners gather for continued fellowship over a potluck dinner. “This has really helped us grow as a family and deepened the sense of who we are together before Christ,” Sister Marge said “The people here take their faith very seriously. Whenever there is a community gathering, they recognize their role as witnesses to Catholicism. God is very important is their daily life. They won’t hesitate to tell you that.”
As an example of how far the Catholic Church has come in her 30 plus years of ministry there, Sister Marge made note of a recent prayer service held at the parish in the midst of the border crisis. More than 70 people of various faith denominations were in attendance.
“This would have been unheard of when we first came here,” she said. The natural beauty of their surroundings and bond with the people continues to inspire the sisters.
“The people keep me here and God is really present for me in this place,” Sister Marge said.
Added Sister Angie: “I don’t have a doubt that this is where my ministry is meant to be.”