Helping the Hispanic Community in the Appalachians
March 19, 2015
By Karel B. Lucander
In 1984, Sister Peggy Verstege made her way to the mountains of North Carolina, leaving behind a life of organization and discipline as a school principal. She was headed into a community in the Appalachian Mountains to teach, and she quickly learned that her makeshift classroom might be outside, under a shade tree. The advice she received: “Stay flexible, stay open.”
For the past three decades, that mantra has continued to resonate with her. Since 2007, she has been serving the Hispanic community at St. Andrew’s parish and beyond—an area that stretches across many winding country miles and counties surrounding Marshall, North Carolina.
Her current spiritual ministry, through the Sisters of Mercy Hispanic Outreach, requires Sister Peggy to wear many hats and drive many hours weekly. Much of her time, she works with young men and women who are becoming leaders of the Hispanic community here. Recently, she was assisting Antonio, an uninsured employee of a logging company, to receive necessary healthcare and worker’s compensation. Machinery had rolled over his legs, requiring major surgery and rods to be inserted in them.
Another time, she was negotiating with a landowner to help a group of residents create a land trust to buy property for their homes in a trailer park, so they could continue living there. She even remembers one man, Margarito, standing in front of her, imploring her to stay and “be the voice for us.”
“My role is to collaborate with people who are ready and willing to improve things for the poor. My work is also to empower the people; to help them understand how to go forward with dignity,” she says. “The population was predominantly Appalachian residents and Floridian snowbirds when I arrived, and then, eventually, the Hispanics were woven in. I’ve watched the face of the Catholic community here change, and our people have truly been a coat of many colors. I not only accept this change but I celebrate our diversity!” she says, emphatically.
Born in Cincinnati and raised in nearby Mount Healthy, Ohio, Sister Peggy entered the Sisters of Mercy in September 1965 and professed her final vows in 1973. She received a bachelor’s degree in theology with a minor in English (and a certification in teaching) from Our Lady of Cincinnati College of Xavier University. She went on to the University of Dayton to obtain her master’s degree in educational administration and later her master’s degree in theology with a specialty in U.S. Hispanic life. She completed some of her studies in U.S. Hispanic theology at the Graduate Theological Union, near the University of California-Berkeley. Prior to her current ministry, she served as director of a retreat center and pastoral minister in North Carolina.
Yet she realizes her life here has come full-circle.
When Sister Peggy first arrived in this mountain community, she was frequently frustrated. Then she learned about Father Andrew Graves, a priest in his 30s who came to the area in 1937 to minister to the poor during the Great Depression. Father Andrew lived in a lean-to with no heat or electricity and little food. He was living a lonely, solitary life; his health began to decline; and he was depressed. But then he looked up to the mountains, prayed, and heard a thundering voice: “I have come so that they can have life and abundance.” This, Sister Peggy believes, is what she is now doing. This is also the reason she is here and so thankful for what she has been called to do.