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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008


Going green

Sisters are renewing community life from the ground up


Sisters across North America are conducting energy audits of their buildings and renovating them using earth-friendly standards, purchasing recycled paper products and nontoxic cleaning products, choosing hybrid cars for their fleets, sod-busting their land to restore native wetland or prairie, and supporting sustainable agriculture by choosing organic or locally sourced food over standard grocery fare.

“We have a small window of opportunity to turn things around, to preserve the planet in some way,” said Sr. Maura Smith, a 60-year member of the Erie Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. “Those of us in the upper reaches of adult life are doing what we can. It’s not a one-time fix. We have to change our lifestyles and change the way we do business if we are going to have a sustainable future.”

While hybrid cars, wind power, and even long-life energy saving light bulbs cost more than conventional options, the sisters choosing them look at the big picture.

“As Al Gore would say, it is a moral issue to reduce our carbon footprint today,” said Sr. Corinne Wright, environmental initiatives manager for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, whose Aston, Pa., complex including a 150-year-old motherhouse and Red Hill Farm, runs on clean energy. “It is a choice that is somewhat more expensive. We are sacrificing in other ways so we make less of a footprint.” For example, said Wright, they keep the thermostat at 68 degrees to reduce consumption and save costs.

“I guess it boils down to conscious living,” Wright said.

Roman Catholic women religious have always rolled up their sleeves in response to the needs of the times, explains Sarah McFarland Taylor, an associate professor of religion at Northwestern University and author of Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (Harvard University Press, 2007); she’s not surprised that “bioneering” sisters are early responders to what many consider today’s most pressing social justice issue, that is, the needs of a planet beset by pollution, deleterious climate change and threatened natural resources.

“I think this is another case of sisters discerning a calling to respond to grave, grave problems in our world,” Taylor said. “They create a path, often ahead of everybody else.”

-- Angie Connolly

From left: Srs. Thea O'Meara, Eillen McGovern, Diane Rapozo and Donna Schauf are among the hybrid car drivers of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Seventeen percent of the leased auto fleet of the Dubuque, Iowa-based community is hybrid.

To show how far they’ve come, imagine that back in 1960, when Nancy Reynolds joined the Sisters of Providence in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind., the congregation had its own coal mine on site. Every so often, burning coal would fire up and send soot into the air.

“We would sit outside,” said Reynolds, a canon lawyer, “and we wore a lot of white with our black. The soot would land on us and we had to blow it off. If you brushed it, it would smear!”

That mine is long closed, and the sisters have discussed harnessing the methane gas trapped underground as an alternative energy source. Now, “eco-justice” -- their preferred term for the greening of their ministry -- is one of their top five congregational priorities. Their White Violet Center for Eco-Justice is a local attraction, educating and involving scores of volunteers interested in green concerns. The center has a straw bale house, a herd of alpacas, 343 acres of state certified organic farmland, bees, a large composting site, a berry patch, a farmers’ market May through September, a water garden, a bluebird trail spring through fall, classified forest, and orchards of apple, pear, peach, cherry and plum trees.

The sisters sell organic straw to local farmers and buy food from community sustainable agriculture gardens. In 2006 they installed a biomass boiler that generates clean heat from plant-based sources such as straw, wood chips, and even some construction materials.

Reducing footprints

Many congregations are buying hybrid cars one or two at a time as an obvious means to reduce their carbon footprint -- but they’re expensive and usually on back order from dealers. Still, some congregations have revved up their commitment to the gas-saving cars. Nearly one-fifth of the fleet driven by the 600 Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is hybrid -- that amounts to 52 hybrid vehicles leased or owned by communities of the Dubuque, Iowa, congregation. And the suburban Chicago Wheaton Franciscans’ fleet is now half hybrid, said leadership team member Sr. Gabriele Uhlein -- that’s 25 Toyota Priuses and counting.

“When we have a province gathering, our parking lot looks like a Prius advertisement,” Uhlein notes. Formerly, her Chevrolet Cavalier got about 20-25 miles per gallon; her Prius gets about twice that or more -- up to 55 miles per gallon.

Sisters are asserting green values as they renovate behemoth motherhouses to accommodate aging sisters or construct cozy straw bale hermitages, or build apartment-style residences that operate on clean or renewable energy sources including wind, geothermal, solar panels and biomass.

Some projects, like the new retirement home built by the St. Louis Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and the renovated motherhouse of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Mich., have been recognized with LEED certification (the U.S. Green Building Council’s voluntary rating system for measuring the environmental performance of a building) or other awards.

A dump truck unloads trees donated from area businesses that will be put through the grinder as Providence Sr. Dana Augustin looks on. The wood chips are burned in the biomass boiler as an alternative heating source for the Sisters of Providence buildings at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind.

The Monroe motherhouse won one of three 2007 Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star awards in the small business and congregation category. Of note is the geothermal system, which the community’s Web site identifies as “one of the largest privately funded geothermal fields in the country.” Geothermal heating and cooling relies on a closed loop system of piping that circulates water kept constant at the earth’s natural 55-degree underground temperature. An auxiliary boiler adds heat on very cold days; cool water is extracted on hot days.

This biomass boiler was installed at the Sisters of Providence motherhouse in June 2006.

Even relatively small measures pay off big time. For example, replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents during one nine-month period in one student residence at Mercyhurst College, founded by the Sisters of Mercy of Erie, Pa., netted a cost savings of nearly $13,000, while reducing the emission of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Mercyhurst also uses solar and wind power, and emphasizes sustainability in its academic programs and campus life.

Sisters are mindful of the three environmental Rs -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- as they deconstruct their buildings, meaning they selectively dismantle them to salvage reusable materials such as flooring and structural timbers. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary ultimately reduced their original 120,000 square foot Dubuque, Iowa, motherhouse to 96,000 square feet that incorporated several energy conservation strategies including geothermal heating, heat recovery systems to control humidity and temperature, and efficient lighting, resulting in approximately 40 percent less energy use than current state energy code requirements for new buildings.

Meanwhile, Sr. Betty Cawley, a leadership team member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, details the 2003 renovation that converted their 1960s Brighton, Mass., motherhouse into the first “earth-friendly” residence of its kind in Boston; a whopping 92 percent of the original building’s materials were salvaged or recycled and all manner of earth-friendly infrastructure incorporated in the remodeled building. Yet the outstanding feature in the new facility? The dual-flush toilets, which use more or less water depending on what is required.

“They’re everybody’s favorite. There are two buttons,” explains Cawley discreetly, “so you choose which flush to use.”

The 85 sisters who live in the 39 apartments in the Brighton residence have pledged to live green in their personal habits, said Cawley. “I think they are genuinely thrilled to be here. On the one hand, they have all the conveniences and appliances for quality of life; at the same time there is a certain satisfaction in knowing they have agreed to live according to the way the building was designed. You feel you are not just taking but you are giving back.”

Using institutional influence

As property owners, teachers and educational administrators, sponsors of health care corporations, and as political activists, women religious cast a wide net of influence. They recognize the importance of what veteran green advocate Sister of Mercy Maura Smith calls the “multiplier effect” of their work.

Smith got her start back in April 1970, when as a new biology faculty member at Mercyhurst College she was “told to do something about Earth Day.”

That “something” eventually led to a major commitment by the college to advance sustainability, said Mercyhurst history professor Chris Magoc, who has worked closely with Smith as a member of the college’s “Green Team,” which has convinced administration to purchase at least 10 percent of its total energy from wind sources, secured funding to install solar panels, and hosts an annual Earth Day event now named in honor of Sr. Maura. Its students are embracing the green mission: Recently a grass-roots campaign won approval to charge a $5 “green fee” per student per semester, which will bring in $40,000 a year to fund green projects on campus, and the school approved an interdisciplinary sustainability studies minor.

Solar panels are installed on the campus of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., in fall 2007.

Congregation-sponsored health care systems can be powerful institutional voices for eco-justice. The Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare system was recognized for the second time as a “Champion of Change” by Hospitals for a Healthy Environment.

And this year in October, the Wheaton campus will be one of 100 national sites hosting the live stream broadcast of the Earth Charter Summit featuring Al Gore.

Taylor says the voices of the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are highly influential in mainstreaming the green sisters movement, citing the statements, conferences and presidents’ addresses that have emerged in recent years, containing “an enormous amount of environmental content. That is 1,000 women, virtually all in leadership positions.” Members of the conference are superiors of sisters’ orders.

-- Courtesy of Sisters of Mercy,
St. Louis Regional Community

Catherine's Residence of the Sisters of Mercy in St. Louis uses natural light for hallways and gathering areas.

Back home, their congregations are collaborating to increase the volume of public discourse on eco-justice issues. Sr. Irene Senn, director of the justice and peace office for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee, organized the Religious Coalition for the Great Lakes, which counts 34 members from about 25 congregations in eight states that border the Great Lakes. The group strives to apply legislative and shareholder pressure to corporate and governmental policies affecting water quality -- and quantity -- of the Great Lakes basin, which contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

‘Be nice to your mother’

Christmas season moviegoers at one of four St. Louis multiplex theaters may have experienced green sisters’ subtle influence if they saw the video advertisement produced by 14 area women’s congregations. It featured the famous “blue planet” image of Earth seen from space with superimposed script reading: “Remember ... Be nice to your mother. Love, Your Sisters” followed by the group’s Web address. Spokesperson Stephanie Heiland said the ad has generated a lot of traffic.

Underlying the green sisters movement is a common thread of a new cosmology that recognizes the “interrelatedness” of all creation from stardust to sequoias to the sisters themselves. And the sisters are finding that their new scientific understanding of the creation events unfolding even now dovetail with their own founding charisms, as well as the pressing needs of a planet in distress.

“I remember [influential environmentalist and Dominican sister] Miriam Therese MacGillis saying to us for the first time, “We don’t walk on the earth; we are of the earth,’ ” recalled Sr. Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence. She shrugged off that thought initially, but eventually came to a new understanding of the creation story and the place of humanity in it. “We are made of the same stuff as the stars,” she said, marveling at the finely balanced conditions in which “life began to evolve from the seas, with just the right amount of heat, of salinity. We continue the creation of providence. It’s not a spirituality of sitting and waiting, but of cooperating with the way God seems to move in the world.”

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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