Sister Jan Barthel: 'Changing the World One Practical Step at a Time'

Posted: 9/15/2011

Sister Jan Barthelby Margaret Gabriel

Partnerships with Glenmary develop in many ways. For Benedictine Sister Jan Barthel that partnership means combining her expertise in management and bookkeeping with a passion for the Appalachian region.

For 12 years Sister Jan served on the board of directors of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), a group established in the early 1970s with a goal of addressing issues of justice, environmentalism and labor.

Father John Rausch is one of several Glenmarians who were instrumental in establishing CCA. Today he serves as the director of the 400-member organization, which has members from every state in the 13-state Appalachian region as well as members from outside the area. Although Sister Jan has resigned her seat on the board, she continues to serve CCA as its bookkeeper.

Sister Jan attended her first CCA meeting in 1995, shortly after entering the Mount Tabor Benedictines in Floyd County, Ky. She attended with other members of her community, and after that first meeting, she knew "CCA was something I could believe in."

Sister Jan's dedication to CCA and the justice issues the group embraces has continued since she first came to Eastern Kentucky from her home in Minnesota. Her membership in CCA introduced her to Father John and other Glenmarians and launched her partnership in Glenmary's mission.

Sister Jan has found that her family and friends in Minnesota take a keen interest in the issues promoted by CCA. For example, opposition to surface mining, specifically mountaintop removal, is high on the list of issues addressed by CCA. Because of her involvement with that key issue, Sister Jan's family has learned of the negative impact that the practice has on the environment.

Sister Jan believes that the work of CCA, specifically the tours that Father John conducts in the region, brings awareness of environmental issues to the public. Just inviting people to see surface mining sites brings attention to the devastation this type of mining causes to the environment and to people's lives.

"You see a lot more advertising and literature from the coal industry than you used to," Sister Jan says. "I saw a TV commercial recently that portrayed a single mother running a cottage industry who said if she didn't have coal-powered electricity, she would have to close her business and lay people off. I see ‘Friends of Coal' logos in print ads and on license plates. The coal industry knows we're making a difference in the way people are thinking."

Sister Jan was instrumental in planning and conducting the "Cross in the Mountains" ecumenical prayer service, held last year on a surface mining site. The service highlighted the importance of care of creation in Catholic social teaching.

"Most churches are involved in justice issues in their own ways, but Catholics seem to have taken a lead role, especially in the Bible Belt," Sister Jan says. "For whatever reason, Catholics and justice seem to go together."

Sister Jan lends a Midwesterner's common sense to CCA, Father John says. "She's not an idealist, but she knows what works with practical, hands-on experience. Sister Jan is going about changing the world one practical step at a time."