Marie Cirillo was born in Brooklyn in 1929. Her father had emigrated from rural Italy. Her mother had grown up in a small Catholic community in central Kentucky. Every summer, her mother returned to her home town, taking Marie and her three sisters for a long stay with their grandparents. They relished their days in the country, released from the sweltering streets of New York City, but their visits also involved a lot of hard work made enjoyable by being in their grandparents’ company. They labored in the garden, canned produce on a hot stove, fed the chickens, and made butter after milking the family cow.
At 19 years of age, Marie joined the Home Mission Sisters of America, a Catholic order of nuns better known as the Glenmary Sisters. The newly minted Sister Marie of Fatima was initially assigned to a rural parish in Kentucky, but later lived in communities in Ohio and Virginia. She spent her last four years as a nun in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, working among impoverished white families of the Appalachian diaspora.
Marie Cirillo left the Glenmary Sisters in 1967 when her religious community broke apart. Most of the order’s nuns ended up seeking dispensation from their vows, frustrated by the patriarchal control of their dress, behavior, and associations that persisted despite the spirit of freedom spreading rapidly throughout the Catholic Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Marie was among 44 Sisters who resigned en masse and created a new organization called the Federation of Communities and Service (FOCUS). Many of them moved to communities scattered throughout Appalachia.
So did Marie, whose original attraction to the Glenmary Sisters had been inspired, in part, by a desire to serve the rural poor. Marie settled in the Clearfork Valley near the unincorporated town of Clairfield, Tenn. Working out of a small house she purchased on Rose’s Creek, she began a long career in community development, helping her neighbors to form one alternative institution after another for the improvement of her adopted community. These eventually included the Model Valley Development Corporation, the Model Valley Craft Group, Mountain Communities for Children, the Jubilee Music Group, the Woodland Community Land Trust, the Woodland Community Development Corporation, the Clearfork Water Utility, and the Clearfork Community Institute.
When Bill Dow, Pat Maxwell, Rod Lorenz, and several other members of the nascent Student Health Coalition (SHC) arrived in Clairfield during the summer of 1969, they were welcomed by Marie who had been busily organizing there for a couple of years. One of her first endeavors had been to help start a health council that soon set about rehabilitating a decrepit building in a former coal camp, creating space for a doctor they hoped might someday come. When she learned that some medical and nursing students from Vanderbilt were planning to offer free physical exams in rural areas, she encouraged the council to invite them. The invitation was extended and the SHC added Clairfield to its summer itinerary.
Local families opened their homes to the students, who put on a three-day Health Fair in an abandoned elementary school. This was, in many respects, the maiden voyage of the SHC, the first time that the students from Vanderbilt organized and managed such an event on their own under the sponsorship of a grassroots group. It became a prototype for the many Health Fairs held in the years ahead.
Marie had lived in Appalachia only a short time when the SHC arrived, but she had already come to believe that many of the region’s problems stemmed from the absentee ownership of the region’s land, minerals, and forests. The poor health of the people, the floods and polluted streams, the lack of jobs, the bad roads and underfunded social services – all were outgrowths of decades of control over Appalachia’s resources (and the region’s politicians) by energy conglomerates and timber companies headquartered far away.
That same realization came quickly to the SHC, with some gentle coaxing from Marie:
The medical students came from Vanderbilt the first year, and even though we were working on a health clinic with them, we got the point across that land was the issue. Bill Dow, who was the organizer, said to us: “You don’t need doctors. You need lawyers.” So the second year they brought the law students along with the medical students.
The title and taxation research subsequently done by the law students, by a political science undergraduate named John Gaventa, and by other members of the SHC – along with the spate of lawsuits, legislation, and organizing that grew out of their research, led by a new nonprofit named Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) – had Marie’s support, but these activities also made her work more difficult, and sometimes dangerous.
In 1977, when SOCM and other advocacy groups began pushing for national legislation to regulate strip-mining more closely, disgruntled locals who depended on surface mining for their livelihood decided that Marie was responsible. They shot into her house and drove by with loudspeakers blaring threats. They cut the brake linings of a car belonging to a volunteer who was staying with her, causing it to run off the road.
This rash of violence died down, but there were other incidents over the years, with arson often being the weapon of choice for critics opposed to one of Marie’s projects or angered by one of her allies. She saw a clinic, a pallet factory, and seven houses built with volunteer labor put to the torch. Despite these setbacks, she trudged on.
The issue to which she doggedly returned, again and again, was land. In her words:
I do believe that people who control the land, whether they are real estate people or land corporations or whatever, they do wield an unbelievable amount of power over us. I started using that terminology “land reform” and people said, “You mustn’t say that!” And I said, “I’ll say what I want to say. That is what I am about.”
Her abiding interest in land reform led her to float the idea of creating a community land trust (CLT) as early as 1974, at the time an untested model of community-owned land that she believed might provide an antidote to many of the ills caused by corporate ownership of the region’s natural resources. Initially skeptical, Marie’s neighbors were eventually persuaded to give the model a try. They incorporated the Woodland Community Land Trust in 1979, one of the first CLTs in the United States.
Since she would not ask of her neighbors something she was unwilling to do herself, one of the first parcels of land to go into trust was the land beneath Marie’s house on Rose’s Creek, land she deeded over to the Woodland CLT soon after it was formed. The organization now owns over 450 acres. Some of this land is used for housing. Other acreage has been set aside for family gardens, hunting, hiking, or small business development.
In 2000, the Woodland CLT acquired an old elementary school on twelve acres, prying this property out of the hands of a timber company based in New Jersey. The community then spent many months trying to figure out what to do with it, deciding at last on a learning center that would promote sustainable economics and community-based education. Thus was founded the Clearfork Community Institute.
In 2013, Marie announced her plan to retire. At 84 years of age, she had decided the time had come to reduce her responsibilities. On September 13th she passed the reins of the Clearfork Community Institute to a new executive director, the final step in a somewhat reluctant march toward retirement.
Retirement hasn’t meant inactivity, however. She still resides on Rose’s Creek and remains faithfully involved in the Woodland CLT. She remains a member of several regional and national associations in which she has long played a major role. She continues to raise money, to recruit volunteers, and to motivate younger activists in support of the many community-based organizations she has helped to launch during her five decades in the Clearfork Valley. In her own quiet way, she is still doing community development.
The work of Marie Cirillo has also been documented in the following:
Marie Cirillo Papers, 1936-1979, Archives of the University of Notre Dame.
Marie Cirillo. 2000. Twentieth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, Salisbury, Connecticut.
Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS) Papers, Archives of Appalachia, East Tennessee State University.
John Gaventa. 1982. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
Caroline E. Knight, Sarah Poteete, Amy Sparrow, and Jessica C. Wrye. 2002. “From the Ground Up: The Community-Building of Marie Cirillo.” Appalachian Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1: 30-56.
Helen M. Lewis and Monica K. Appleby. 2003. Mountain Sisters: From Convent to Community in Appalachia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Georgiana Vines. 2010. “For More than 40 Years, a Former Nun from New York Has Helped Appalachian communities,” Knoxville News Sentinel (March 27).