“Well, I have lost you; and I lost you fairly;
In my own way, and with my full consent.”
—Edna St. Vincent Millay
Leslie Countians have lost the stained-glass window at St. Christopher’s Chapel. We have lost it, and we lost it fairly, and with our full consent.
For as long as our ancestors have lived in these mountains – decades before Mary Breckinridge despaired of the level of care mothers and babies received here – we’ve been giving the best of what we have to outsiders and asking for little to nothing in return.
We’ve thrown better pearls before baser swine than the people who took a stained-glass window, and gladly. We’ve given them our coal, our property, our history, our health and our healthcare. We’ve let outsiders tell our stories or write us out of our own stories. With our full consent, we have and we continue to put our future and the future of our region’s children, the future of the very water we drink and the land we live on, in the hands of people who consider us and our mountains disposable. In our own way, we’ve given away our fortune, and we have very little to show for it.
But there are other chapels, and other stained-glass windows. The people who took the window from St. Christopher’s Chapel passed another church, built of the same local stone, and two stained glass windows. Like St. Christopher’s Chapel and the old Frontier Nursing Service hospital, Central Presbyterian Church was built by Leslie Countians, for Leslie Countians. Just as they did the chapel and the hospital, Leslie Countians donated the property where the church stands, and gave of their money and their labor to support the church. And like St. Christopher’s Chapel, the Presbyterian Church is graced with stained glass.
The windows at Central Presbyterian are not as old or as storied as the window taken from St. Christopher’s Chapel, but they are far more valuable because the windows belong to Leslie County. They were chosen by Leslie Countians, paid for by Leslie Countians, and exist as a beautiful, living memorial to the history of those who built and attended the church, and by turn, the history of Leslie County. They are there for anyone to enjoy, any day that church services are being held, or anytime you ask a church member to let you see them. No one will padlock the church against Leslie Countians, or put up no trespassing signs to keep Leslie Countians out. Most importantly, no one outside of Leslie County can claim they own those stained-glass windows or that church.
No matter how many Leslie Countians gave of their time and their labor and even their property to have a hospital and a chapel, none of it ever belonged to us. We gave of ourselves so that people all over the world – yes, the entire world – could receive better healthcare, and though we ourselves benefitted from that, too, our mistake was in not demanding a full partnership, rather than accepting what we were told was charity. Because we did not negotiate the terms, we never received the credit we were due, and we never took enough seats at the table to be able to stop a window that was given to Leslie County from being removed from a chapel that we built but found ourselves locked out of.
Let’s not grieve what was never ours. Let the next Frontier Nursing Service, and the next stained-glass window in Leslie County be ours.