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NCR Staff

It’s another new frontier. And once again, U.S. religious women are on it.

Hauling a greenhouse in a donated moving truck and with 200 books as the nucleus of their library, a trio of women departed for Vermont from St. Gabriel’s Monastery, Clark’s Summit, Pa., June 1. Their hope is to create a new contemplative order whose charism is healing and protecting the earth.

The earth-life spiritual foundation being attempted by Passionist Srs. Gail [Wocelo] and Rita Ordakowski and lay associate Bernadette Bostwick is one of the more dramatic manifestations of a growing interest among women religious in environmental spirituality. And its austere beginnings are not unlike efforts of U.S. sisters in earlier centuries whose work took them to uncharted terrain on the frontiers of the “new” continent.

The only other new foundation in this decade by American women religious is the 1991 New York City-founded Sisters of Life, whose 45 sisters share a charism “to protect human life and advance a sense of the sacredness of all human life.”

The effort by the Passionists has triple roots, explained [Wocelo] by phone as she waited for the moving truck to arrive. Primary are the writings and inspiration of fellow Passionist, noted geologian and theologian of the cosmos, Fr. Thomas Berry.

[Wocelo] first heard Berry speak in the 1980s when she was in the novitiate. “I knew then my commitment in religious life would be in that direction -- bringing spirituality into the cosmology, situating spirituality in the larger context,” she said.

Two other sources of encouragement, she said, are the all-important support of her own Passionist community at St. Gabriel’s, and the energy being created by Sisters of Earth, an informal network of women religious dedicated to environmental spirituality in its many forms.

Such activities can leave religious open to critics sniping at them for being New Age.

“New Age? It is a new age,” retorts Mary Lou Dolan of the Sisters of St. Joseph, an early instigator of Sisters of Earth. “Ask critics to define what they mean, and what they come up with is not what this is all about.

“In terms of the Catholic sacramental view of the world,” said Dolan, “and in terms of the book of scripture as book of nature kind of thing, this is quite traditional.” What’s less traditional but moving toward greater recognition as part of the Catholic/Christian spiritual heritage is what people like [Wocelo] and Dolan are doing. Dolan directs the 1997-founded Master of Arts in Earth Literacy program at the Providence Sisters’ St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana.

“We’ve 25 [students] now and room for more,” Dolan said. This fall a priest is coming from the Philippines to attempt to pursue the program full-time that, Dolan estimates, will take him about 18 months.

Most students have full-time jobs and stretch the studies and internships over three years.

“Our students are committed the moment they walk in the door,” Dolan said. Two-thirds of the program is required course work, the rest is internships -- anything from organic gardening to working in a nature center.

Dolan has her eye toward 2001 when the new nonresidential program’s first MAs graduate.

Semesters are five months; cost is $300 a credit.

Names like “St. Gabriel’s,” like “Berry” and “Genesis Farm,” are common touchstones for the 250-plus nuns loosely connected to [Wocelo] through the Sisters of Earth (dues, $5 a year). The monastery, where [Wocelo] created Homecomings: Center for Ecology and Contemplation, a retreat center, was the site of Sisters of Earth’s first national gathering -- 50 people in 1994. Attractions at St. Gabriel’s included its vegetarian cooking and the center’s hermitage built of straw bales. It was at the St. Gabriel’s meeting that Sisters of Earth first discussed the idea of a new women’s foundation that blended the spiritual with the cosmological and environmental.

The decision made at that time was to not create a new foundation among themselves, but to work through their congregations toward new environmental-spiritual awareness and programs. And to see where those efforts led.

The Passionists’ “new expression” in Vermont is a first in anchoring the work in a traditional institutional way. Genesis Farm, in Blairstown, N.J., is an organic farm and spirituality center created by Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis. Her work includes “re-opening Christian mysteries, re-visioning the vowed life and land issues.”

In conjunction with St. Thomas University in Miami, Genesis Farm offers a certificate in ecology and spirituality, which is frequently a starting point for people -- such as Sr. Suzanne Golas, who earned a certificate last year -- taking on the eco-spirituality challenge.

Last year, high in the Adirondacks, her Genesis Farm experience completed, Golas dipped her hand into the narrow stream that is the headwaters of the Hudson. It was a baptism of sorts for Golas. After six years as president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, she has embarked on a new life dominated by two major efforts.

She has founded WaterSpirit, an environmental-spirituality learning program with outreach to local parishes and the public. Sessions are at the order’s Long Branch, N.J., Stella Maris Retreat Center.

And in a new role for her community, Golas is its nongovernmental organization representative to the United Nations, focusing on environmental issues.

She and MacGillis were in the Adirondacks as part of their exploratory pilgrimage along the lengths of both the Hudson and the Delaware rivers.

As an indication of the range of Sisters of Earth members’ activities, consider the completely different environmental tack taken by member Dominican Sr. Mary Ellen Leciejewski (pronounced lech-ee-es-key) at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, Calif.

There she ensures that unused surgical scissors, or sterile containers that once held bandages and instruments for surgery, are placed on the shelves of the hospital’s free store, “DominAgain.”

Pre-school teachers “shop” at DominAgain for containers in which to keep school supplies; painters stop in to collect old scrubs to use as drop cloths. People pick up scrub brushes -- “used once before they operate by surgeons with already clean hands,” said Leciejewski with a laugh, “to use on their pets, or massage their feet.” All goods are cleared by the hospital’s infection control group as untainted.

But this isn’t the extent of Leciejewski’s environmental focus. She is environmental program coordinator for 35 other hospitals in the Catholic Healthcare West group. In Santa Maria, Calif., the Franciscan Sisters’ Marian Medical Center calls its store “Francis-Can.” Her recent video: “Common Ground: Women Religious Healing the Earth,” is now beginning to circulate among like-minded sisters.

Meanwhile, Fr. Berry, whose work is key to understanding much of the motive behind women religious healing the earth, gives encouragement to efforts like the new Vermont development.

“Gail [Wocelo] is a very clear thinker,” said Berry, now 85 and in retirement in Greensboro, N.C., his boyhood home. “She knows how to plan,” he said by telephone from the small apartment fashioned into the top half of a stable on his brother’s farm, “and she has a consistency in what she sets out to do.”

“I think it will certainly be seen,” he added, “that she has the example of Miriam MacGillis [Genesis Farm] for what she plans to do.”

For [Wocelo] and her companions in Vermont -- “the diocese of Vermont has welcomed us,” she said -- monastic life will be the key to each day. “We’re committed to praying, meditating at the traditional holy hours of dawn and dusk. Those are cosmological hours, too,” she added merrily.

Until they have established their own spiritual regimen, the women will twice daily join the monks of Weston Priory, five miles away, for the monks’ 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. public worship. Once the trio’s search for land is successful, “we’ll do organic or biodynamic gardening and offer community supported agriculture,” [Wocelo] said.

“We’d like to have our architecture be coherent with the landscape -- use renewable materials such as straw bales and solar panels -- to have a monastic community with its orientation toward protection of the earth. It’s all very exciting,” she said.

Back in North Carolina, Berry offers a modest view of his own work and its reverberations. “I’ve managed to make a decent amount of noise.” He has a new book due out in the fall, The Great Work (Random House).

It is concerned, he said, with the change that’s needed in the human community to move from being a disastrous and destructive presence on the earth to one that is a benign or creative presence. That’s the work Sisters of Earth have undertaken.

And Berry’s new book will probably be the first addition to the Vermont farmhouse library.

Sr. Mary Lou Dolan at 812-535-5160 or e-mail: elm@smwc.edu
Sr. Mary Ellen Leciejeweski at 831-462-7674 or e-mail: leciejewski@aol.com
Sr. Helen Gohres at 608-788-5100 (day)
Sr. Miriam MacGillis at 908-362-6735 (day)
Sr. Suzanne Golas at 732-229-0602 or e-mail: unsw@bellatlantic.net
Sister of Earth: Sr. Kathy Erard at 202-462-2591 or e-mail: kerard@tc3net.com
Global Education Associates, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1848, New York NY 10015 Phone: 212-870-3290 Fax: 212-870-2729 E-mail: gea475@igc.apc.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999 [corrected 08/13/1999]