Small Virginia Community Was Organized by Former Catholic Nuns

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Walking the grounds of ElderSpirit Community, with its tidy gray and beige houses, bicycles resting on the porches and carefully tended gardens, you might think that it is a sleepy place. But spend a little more time, and you'll realize that the retirees who live here aren't the napping sort. They're folks who'd say that you can sleep when you're dead.

These 42 seniors -- men and women, singles and couples, most in their 70s but a few in their 60s and 80s -- packed up their lives and headed out, not to a gated community in Florida but to Abingdon, a town of 8,000 in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia. They wear their politics on their feet: Crocs or Birkenstocks rather than Dr. Scholl's. Their cars sport bumper stickers with such zingers as "BARACK OBAMA is a LOT more ABEL than CAIN."

In their "spirit center," a small, round structure with a cork floor designed to muffle noise and facilitate meditation, hangs a banner bearing symbols of the major world religions. The library has a few volumes of typical retiree reading, such as the beauty-parlor wit and wisdom of Erma Bombeck, but its shelves also contain the more untamed humor of Al Franken. Who knows when the residents find time to read, though. With only one full-time administrative employee to help them, they handle everything from ElderSpirit's finances to upkeep of the property.

The lifestyle here is pretty hip compared with the one on offer in more institutional retirement settings, where some ElderSpirit residents see their friends whiling away the hours at "junkets," as one man termed them: peppy singalongs, and arts and crafts hours.

But what really makes the residents of ElderSpirit remarkable is this: A few years ago, most of them had never even met, but now they work, eat, play and pray together. And they have promised to stand by one another, physically and spiritually, until they die.

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Groundbreaking at ElderSpirit took place in March 2003, but the story begins shortly after World War II, when a group of Catholic nuns (the women who would become the core of ElderSpirit) joined an order called the Glenmary Sisters. After serving struggling Appalachian communities for almost 20 years, they ran into trouble during the Second Vatican Council, when they began liberalizing faster than the local church hierarchy, trading in their long habits for short ones and shifting to a more secular mission.

In 1967, dozens of the women decided that they'd had enough and left the order. Some of them remained nuns, but others abandoned the convent. Of those who struck out on their own, 44 banded together to form the nonprofit Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS), which allowed them to continue their work in Appalachia.

By the 1990s, some of the former nuns were preparing for retirement. Never ones to take the conventional route, they began exploring ways to retire together and build a community centered on spirituality and mutual care.

"I wanted some support for dying," said Dene Peterson, the driving force behind the project.

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