Story and photos by Dave Eck
ELKHORN CITY, Ky. ‑ When you ask Precious Blood Sister Margie Zureick what exactly she does as pastoral associate at St. Joseph the Worker Mission in Elkhorn City, Ky., she rattles off a list of titles. She’s a counselor, fundraiser, administrator and employer. But most of all she’s a friend to this tiny rural community tucked deep in the hills of Appalachia.
The smiling nun who often wears University of Kentucky blue reaches out to anyone in need, regardless of denomination. From a small financial gift that enables a young mother to make her rent to creating a business that employs several local residents and provides a needed community service, Sister Margie’s handprints can be found all over town.
For her it’s simply about serving the people and helping them meet their needs.
“The people are great here,” Sister Margie said. “It’s a good relationship. People usually accept me being Catholic. It’s not a Catholic area. I really like them and they really like me. On the whole people are friendly and I like it because I can walk with them.”
Nestled on the southeastern edge of Kentucky at the Virginia border, Elkhorn City is surrounded by natural beauty. Hills rise from all directions and two-lane country roads wind through the woods. The Breaks, a 5-mile gorge that drops 1,650 feet and draws thousands of visitors a year, is located less than five miles from the mission. Elkhorn City is a breath-taking place that Sister Margie calls her mountain paradise. Still, beauty can’t mask the challenges facing the community.
Most of the residents work in coal mines or for businesses that support the coal industry. Workers are regularly laid off or injured and unable to work. Future job growth lags the national average by nearly five percent and household income is less than 60 percent of the average, according to some recent statistics.
That’s where Sister Margie comes in. Going about town, she quietly helps people pay their bills, gives them rides in her van, buys them food staples and provides them gasoline. She oversees operation of a thrift store and operates a food pantry.
Still, sometimes it’s just about making people feel good about themselves and happy.
She tells of a couple renewing their wedding vows. The wife wants a wedding dress, something she didn’t have when she married. “It’s a happy time and we’ll find her a wedding dress,” Sister Margie said, adding she will probably have to have it dry cleaned.
A native of Cincinnati, Sister Margie’s interest in the poor formed while she was still in high school working at a small grocery store. She remembers seeing the poorer residents struggle financially.
“That’s when I really developed an appreciation for the poor and mission,” She said. “I just felt like I wanted to be with the people who just didn’t have a whole lot. There’s just a difference with the poor.”
That experience helped her discern a call to religious life. She contacted various communities and learned the Sisters of the Precious Blood had missions in Missouri and on the Indian reservations. She also knew the Precious Blood Sisters from being a student at then-Regina High School in Norwood, Ohio. She entered the community in 1956.
She taught for 14 years, but her ministry changed when she took an eighth-grade class on a mission trip to Kentucky. She got to know the people and the area. Something stirred within her.
“I really felt a call to the Appalachian people of southeastern Kentucky,” she said. “We brought the class to Lancaster, Ky., and that’s when I became acquainted with the mission work here. I just saw the needs.”
In 1971, she and two other Precious Blood Sisters, now former members, began ministering at St. Paul Parish in McKee, Ky. They did pastoral work, outreach and opened a kindergarten.
“That was the first thing we did because that was the need there,” she said of starting the kindergarten. “We respond to the needs of the people.”
After four years at St. Paul Parish she returned to Dayton to serve on the Sisters of the Precious Blood formation team. After her term was up, she was invited by Father Wilfred Fraenzle to minister at St. Clare Parish in Berea, Ky. A year later she and Father Wil moved to a parish in Beattyville, Ky. Four years later, Father Wil asked her to open a new parish in Campton, Ky., the first parish in Wolfe County. She stayed at the new parish, Church of the Good Shepherd, for 14 years doing community outreach and pastoral work.
In 2001, she again left Kentucky for Dayton, this time to work at St. Mary’s Development and with Precious Blood Sister Donna Liette at Mercy Manor. She enjoyed the ministry and figured Kentucky was in her past.
“I had made my break,” she said. “It was hard both times I left.”
About five years later, however, during a visit to Campton, she ran into Father Wil. He told her he was trying to find someone to reopen the mission in Elkhorn City, which had been closed and was going to be sold. She turned him down.
Several months later she was on a trip with Tiffin Franciscan Sister Marge Eilerman, who mentioned that Father Wil was still trying to get someone to reopen St. Joseph. Sister Eilerman knew Sister Margie’s history in Kentucky and began talking about the work. Ironically, Sister Donna was waiting to pick up Sister Margie at the end of the trip. Margie told Donna that she was discerning a return to Kentucky, but really the decision had already been made.
She moved to Elkorn City in spring 2006, reopened the mission and “started in again,” she said. Less than a dozen people attend the 8:30 Sunday Mass, but the sense of community is strong. People come to the mission seeking prayer, help or just companionship.
Margie also started her work in the community. She noticed that there was no laundromat in and that people were seeking a place to wash their clothes. So, Sister Margie pulled together officials from other churches and they opened a laundromat in an empty Elkhorn City storefront. It employs a few people, provides a service to the community and fills an empty space. It’s a simple example of filling the needs.
Barb and Ronnie Johnson have seen Sister Margie’s impact on the community. Barb works in the laundromat and Ronnie volunteers there.
“I think she’s one of the best people who ever came into this town,” Ronnie said. “She helps the poor. She helps them all she can.”
Debbie Ratliff, another laundry employee, said Sister Margie helps wherever she’s able.
“I’ve never seen anybody who is as big-hearted as she is,” Ratliff said. “You won’t see many people in Elkhorn who haven’t met her or whose lives haven’t been touched by her in some way.”
For Sister Margie, it all goes back to meeting the needs, and she always finds a way. She recalled a time in McKee, Ky. when she had volunteers visiting and all they had was powdered milk. The milk was running low and the volunteers asked her to save it. Soon, someone came by asking if Sister Margie had any milk. Of course, Sister Margie gave away the last of the milk. A short time later a priest drove up with a whole truckload of powdered milk asking if Sister Margie could use it.
“I’ve always been blessed,” she said. “Little miracles happen.”
Those experiences help form Sister Margie’s spirituality. It’s easier to see God’s presence in places like Elkhorn City. It puts things in perspective, she said. It’s not about money and how much a person has. It’s about living simply.
It’s also about helping her people.
“We don’t have a lot of money for stuff, but for the people we’ve got it,” Sister Margie said. “I have never had to turn away somebody because I don’t think we have enough money. Even if I know we don’t have enough money, I never turn them away.”