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For many, environmental action is returning to roots

NCR Staff

Age is no barrier to caring for the earth or for nurturing the awareness that spirituality is somehow bound up with the environment. And for many U.S. women religious, such instincts might have a direct line to their orders’ earliest days in this country.

In 1998, from La Crosse, Wis., Sr. Helen M. Gohres wrote to Sisters of Earth saying, “I am an 80-year-old Franciscan Sister trying to improve my awareness of earth’s sacredness and learn how to take good care of our marvelous planet.” Later that year, with Mary Walter Heires, also a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, Gohres attended the Sisters of Earth gathering in Sinsinawa, Wis.

Since then she has been trying to raise money to bring Joyce Johnson Rouse, a young singer, composer and activist to Catholic schools in her area. Gohres, a former music teacher, heard Rouse in Sinsinawa.

“Joyce is a member of Musicians United to Save the Environment, and her mission is to heal the planet one song at a time,” said Gohres. “Her melodies are good and catchy, her lyrics delightful, and yet they teach a lot about earth.”

Heires told Sisters of Earth, “I am a retired volunteer sister at our home for nonindependent living sisters. I feel devoted to the earth and nature, and enjoy alerting the sisters I take out in wheelchairs to the beauty of our lawns and the changes that take place daily.” The present-day nursing home was a functioning congregation farm when Heires and Gores were postulants.

In the 19th century and the first half of this century, many U.S. religious orders had farms to feed themselves even before they established schools, hospitals and orphanages. “The sisters had to produce on the farms,” said Washington, D.C.-based Sr. Kathy Erard, an Adrian Dominican. “They were not paid salaries.”

Times changed, but the sensibilities have returned full force. Erard — who works for the North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology on the president’s “Million Solar Roofs Program” — said that at their Michigan motherhouse, the Adrian Dominicans are marking the jubilee by letting their land lie fallow for three years. Allowing the land to lie fallow is, with crop rotation, a traditional method for rejuvenating farmland.

Rethinking the use of land surrounding motherhouses is an important starting point for many sisters today.

For seven years, Mary Gayle Brabec of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin was rural life director for the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese. She left that position to discern ways for more conscious land use around the order’s Mount Carmel motherhouse in Dubuque, Iowa.

In Smithtown, N.Y., Sister of St. Joseph Mary Lou Buser has started an organic garden on the motherhouse grounds as a model for teaching neighbors.

In Oldenburg, Ind., Michaela Farm, an environmental education center, combines spiritual renewal and organic food production on land the Franciscan sisters acquired in 1854. At its peak it supported 500 sisters, supplying meat, produce, milk and fruit.

In 1991 the sisters decided on a revitalization program, and today Franciscan Sr. Anita Brelage wants to include people other than members of religious communities in developing “sustainable development human communities.”

In addition to local programs, the farm runs free six- and nine-month internships where students swap work on the farm for the skills and scholarship to handle organic farming, the land and its needs.

Sisters by the scores, after a lifetime in schools, hospitals, mission and social service work, are finding unique ways to live out their new religious ties to earth, nature, creation.

Sinsinawa is where Sisters of Earth member Miriam Brown, a Dominican, directs the ecumenical Churches’ Center for Land and People. Its programs support earth care and rural ministry, and the center is a voice for rural concerns in churches and society.

In Busby, Mont., Franciscan Sr. Marya Grathwohl facilitates earth-through-storytelling retreats. In their photocopied directory, she told other Sisters of Earth, “I’m learning to live committed to earth and all beings, and hope to enhance that commitment.”

In Louisville, Ky., Sister of Charity of Nazareth Phyllis Hannon directs environment seminars at Spaulding University. In the same city Ursuline Sr. Mary Jo Grammig works on her congregation’s environmental subcommittee, which sponsors workshops and circulates a newsletter.

There’s word of activities outside the United States, too. Sisters of Earth includes Mercy Sr. Kathleen Gibbons who runs an ecology and environment center in Portumna, County Galway, and Sister of Charity Ellen Donovan, a registered massage therapist and Reiki master, who is a founding member of the Nova Scotia Coalition for Ecology, Ethics and Religion.

Sisters of Earth has a handful of non-professed members.

One is Eleanor Rae of Ridgefield, Conn., founder of the Center for Women, the Earth, the Divine, which offers retreats. Rae said that there is “an understanding today that the environmental crisis is very, very real. And people generally are looking to traditions in their Christianity to deal with it.”

Author of Women, the Earth, the Divine (Orbis) and coauthor of Created in Her Image, Models of the Feminine Divine, Rae says, “It struck me [at the Sisters of Earth 1998 Sinsinawa meeting] that so many sisters were working within their own communities on earth-centered spirituality — working there to be the yeast.” The Sisters of Earth concept, explained Sr. Mary Lou Dolan, founder of the Earth Literacy program at St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana, has its origins in the early 1990s work of Sister of St. Joseph Mary Southard, an artist, and Jesuit Fr. John Surette at Spiritearth.

Dolan, a former cellular biologist who joined the Boston twosome in their work in Millis, Mass., explained that Spiritearth focused on “a contemplative stance toward earth spirituality as opposed to an action stance, trying to see the spiritual dimension present in the earth.”

She said that in 1994, Southard and Sister of St. Joseph Evelyn Sommers, who describes herself as “trying to become an earth contemplative,” decided: “Why not call a meeting to see how many people are out there doing this kind of work?” Dolan typed up the first flyer; the initial gathering, at St. Gabriel’s Monastery, Clark’s Summit, Pa. was held. The Sisters of Earth were organized, and six years later plans are underway for a late summer West Coast meeting in 2000 — their first in that part of the country.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999