Nuns With a New Creed: Environmentalism

While many of their aged peers are living out their days in quiet convents, these women are digging gardens and offsetting carbon.
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Genesis Farm, in Blairstown, New Jersey (Angela Evancie)

Every woman in this story is confoundingly non-descript. Short hair, often grey. Conservative dress. Unmarried; soft-spoken. Most are well into their seventies, and all will tell you that their way of life is dying out. They will also tell you, with surprising conviction, that the world is in peril.

They are Roman Catholic sisters, from a variety of orders—Dominican, Mercy, Passionist—but don’t think Whoopie Goldberg or a young Sally Field. While many of their aged peers are living out their days in quiet convents, these women are digging gardens and offsetting carbon. They’re as well-versed in solar and geothermal technology as they are in the Gospels of Luke and John, and some wear Carhartts and work boots like they’re habits. At the heart of the women’s action is a belief that the changing climate and world demand a new kind of vocation – that Ave Marias won't cut it anymore, but maybe clean energy will. Called Green Sisters, or Sisters of Earth, they are pushing the bounds of their tradition toward a new, and deeply spiritual, kind of environmentalism.

“The Judeo-Christian tradition is so beautiful, and it has such wisdom, but it doesn’t have a lot to say about fracking,” Miriam MacGillis, a Dominican sister in her mid-seventies, told me. We were eating lunch at Genesis Farm, an earth literacy center in Blairstown, New Jersey that MacGillis founded in 1980. Our mesclun mix and roasted squash came from fields just across the road where, in 1982, MacGillis launched one of the first Community Supported Agriculture programs in the country. “There’s some wisdom in the Scriptures, like how you treat your neighbor, and being kind and compassionate,” she continued. “But they took for granted that the earth was there to be their resource.” In this regard, MacGillis is part of a growing movement of Christians assessing the applicability of Biblical teachings to the climate movement, though some—like evangelical environmentalists—see in the Bible not a disregard for the planet, but a direct mandate for protecting it. Nearby, MacGillis’s Prius sat parked behind her small straw-bale home, which is in turn set behind a much larger solar array.

There were other hybrid vehicles on the premises. Earlier that day, the leadership team from Slow Foods USA had caravanned from their New York offices to Blairstown to hold their annual retreat. They were a young group—not one of them looked older than 35—and of a generation for which devotion to a life of prayer is about as likely a career option as becoming a chimney sweep or milkman. During a tour of the kitchen gardens, orchards and fields, Josh Viertel, then the organization’s president, told me he had been surprised to learn that Genesis Farm was run by a Roman Catholic sister. “I thought it was far out,” he said. “Most of the people I know doing work like this are opposed to things like organized religion.”

But nuns—women religious, as they call themselves—have been doing work like this for a while. Consider the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, who, in 2000, renovated their 370,000-square-foot motherhouse for LEED certification. On their 280-acre campus, they introduced a three-acre wetland to recycle grey water and established what was, at the time, one of the largest geothermal fields in the country. The IHM sisters spent $56 million, calling energy efficiency a “spiritual and moral mandate for the 21st century” and part of a “renewed vision for bringing about the dream of God on earth.”

In 1994, when a small group of Mercy Sisters from the Confert Diocese in Ireland’s County Galway set out to establish an organic garden and ecology center, the diocese opposed the center, asking the women to take their project elsewhere. But the leadership eventually capitulated. “It was a clash between the old world and the new world,” Sister Noreen Lyons said on the last morning of my stay, during which she and Sister Anne Mills had distributed countless scones and pots of tea to students in gardening, building and forestry classes led by visiting experts. The center is called An Gáirdín (Irish for “the garden); it runs its classes, mostly for locals, behind the site of the former Rural Domestic School, where Mercy sisters lived and held similar courses for women for over 100 years. Today, the large brick building is an apartment complex. An Gáirdín’s organic gardens and unassuming outbuildings—and its own geothermal system, the second in Ireland—sit behind the building’s parking lot.

Sisters Noreen Lyons and Anne Mills (Angela Evancie)

It comes as no surprise that Catholic sisters have been among the leaders in the ongoing, if fractured, environmentalist movement. Catholic sisters have a long history of hands-on progressivism in the form of both protest (civil rights, Vietnam, nuclear energy) and humanitarianism (establishing schools, fighting poverty). In Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, Sarah McFarland Taylor traces sisters’ activism back to the 17th century, when the Sisters of St. Joseph in Le Puy, France “administered hospitals, taught children, and provided houses of refuge for the poor.”  In the United States, sisters routinely tended to patients in disease-ridden and disaster-stricken new cities; in Civil War field hospitals, they stayed with soldiers when bombardments caused other medics to flee.  When asked how people responded to the IHM motherhouse renovation, Sister Janet Ryan told the NBC Today Show, “They think we’re mad.  But they’ve always thought we were mad, so what’s the difference, right?”

The way Sister Gail Worcelo talks about it, sisters are almost like first-responders.  “Religious communities come into existence because of a cultural or political or historical urgency,” she says. “Sisters have addressed urgencies for education, or for a reconstitution of a life of prayer. And in our time, we see the urgency—the urgency is planetary.” In 2005, Worcelo and Sister Bernadette Bostwick founded the Green Mountain Monastery, a wood-heated farmhouse and unheated yurt on 160 acres of balsam forest in northern Vermont. They were joined by Sister Amie Hendani, from Jakarta, last year. The women give retreats (upcoming: Monastic School of Collective Emergence), grow their own vegetables and travel to lecture on the way in which the Catholic tradition is moving into its planetary, or cosmological, phase.

This last part, and the inspiration for the Green Mountain Monastery (as well as for Genesis Farm, and, in one way or another, for the dozens of female-led spirituality farms and eco-justice centers across the country and on every continent) came, perhaps ironically, from a man. His name was Thomas Berry, and he was a Passionist priest, cultural historian, and self-proclaimed “geologian,” a historian of the earth. Worcelo and Bostwick first met him in 1984, when he came to lecture at St. Gabriel’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, where they were novitiates. He told the community that it was time to respond to the planetary crisis, Worcelo recalls, and begin to think of humanity as intricately connected to the natural world.  “We go into the future as a single, sacred community,” he said, “or we’ll perish on the way.”

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Angela Evancie is a writer, photographer, and radio producer based in Eugene, Oregon. She has contributed to NPR, This American LifeThe New York Times, and The Rumpus.

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