By Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Jim and Eydie Triplett first met Sister Jean Korkisch in 2007. “We fell in love with her,” Eydie says. She chuckled, adding it took a little while, citing Sister Jean’s self-described choice for the Order of Holy Cross because “sometimes she’s holy and sometimes she’s cross.” Her task master ways were initially misunderstood. “She was trying to make sure that the people we were working for got the best quality work they could get – just because we’re doing work for free doesn’t mean it needs to look that way,” Eydie explained.
Ask anyone in Dickenson County if they know Sister Jean and chances are, they’ll have a story to share. Her personality and devotion to the economically challenged mining community of Dickenson County helped reframe the way both locals and visitors experience life. Volunteers she recruited from around the country reaped rewards from giving while learning about the unique qualities of the quaint town of Clintwood. Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia’s far southwest, Dickenson County has a population of approximately 15,000 and has no main highway venturing near.
Earlier this summer, Sister Jean Korkisch, CSC was lauded by the Dickenson County Board of Supervisors through a Resolution in Recognition of Public Service. This honor reflected 34 years of dedicated service to the community by Sister Jean, who recently returned to her order in Indiana because of health issues. The Resolution noted her starting the pre-school program Play Time (none existed in the area prior); starting a GED program (the first); providing Christmas presents and home repair for low-income families in cooperation with Binns County Community Center; offering leadership for the Health Wagon, the area’s only safety net health clinic; and, perhaps most notably, her 19 years spent organizing the St. Joseph Housing Repair Program.
Sister Jean drew from her vast Holy Cross sister network to bring in a new volunteer team every week in spring, fall and summer to support the construction and repair projects of local homes and trailers, according to Father Tim Drake, pastor of St. Joseph, Clintwood, who worked with Sister Jean for 10 years during that time.
“She was one of the best-known people in the County for what she did,” Fr. Drake said. “She got to know generations of families,” he added. “She didn’t just talk about being Christian, she acted like it. It was a special ministry to those in need.” She also served as a counselor, getting to know the people and their problems as she supervised work crews.
Volunteers came year after year, often starting as youth volunteers then becoming adult leaders and in some cases, bringing their kids to participate, according to Fr. Drake. “Sister Jean has done wonderful work and she’s encouraged others to do the same. You can’t say more than that,” he said.
Jim and Eydie Triplett returned 10 consecutive years as part of a team sent by Saint Edward, Richmond, that included 16 youth plus six to eight chaperones. Their son participated for five years too. They came during the Fourth of July, stayed in the house and, when not working, experienced live music, learned about the realities of coal mining and other local features. The family enjoyed watching the small town’s parade and fireworks and a cookout from the lawn of the home where they stayed.
Daytimes they were divided into groups for community home repair projects. “She hired local workers who led our work groups and made sure we stayed safe and did the work the right way and she would go site to site making sure we did . . . and talk with the homeowners making sure they got what they wanted,” Jim explained.
St. Joseph is a small parish but Sister Jean had a big impact on the community. Eydie remembered a local man telling her husband, “That little church does more for the area than the big Baptist church we have here because they send people all over the world, but you stay here.”
Eydie was struck by two questions Sister Jean always asked volunteers at the end of the week: What have you learned this week? What are you going to do differently when you go home?
“She certainly opened my eyes to (the fact) that just because people are poor, they (still) have dignity.” Eydie explained. “I think her program was about building houses and repairing houses but it was really about building human dignity because she really encourages you when you were at the work site to talk to the residents that you were helping. You find out they’re not really any different than you.”
The Diocese ended the St. Joseph Housing Repair program last year and work was transferred to the Binns County Community Center. Sister Jean recently moved back to Sisters of the Holy Cross in Notre Dame Indiana because of health issues. She’s now actively serving in that community.