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Religious Orders Set Pace for Preserving Environment

Several religious congregations have won praise for their efforts to preserve the environment. Heres what the Franciscans, Benedictines and Crosiers are doing.
by Irene Voth | Source:
When it comes to preserving natural resources, the work of religious
congregations “rivals some of the best university, governmental and NGO (nongovernmental organization) programs in this country and around the world,” wrote Matt Russell, community organizer for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Russell’s July 7 memorandum to women’s and men’s religious congregations called ethical land use decision-making by religious congregations “pioneering endeavors.”

St. Benedict’s Monastery

“We can’t do everything, but we can become models,” said Sister Phyllis Plantenberg, a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph. In 1999, the sisters placed 26 acres of hardwood forest located near the St. Cloud Regional Airport into a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust. The easement is a legal agreement to restrict land use permanently, and the placement followed an earlier placement by the sisters of 80 acres in Sherburne County, which was subsequently transferred to the Sand Prairie State Wildlife Management Area. The Order of St. Benedict is a charter member of the Minnesota Land Trust.

“The land belongs to God,” Sister Phyllis said, explaining that some of the sisters’ remaining rural property is actively farmed but that the rental agreement with the farmers gives the sisters “a way to monitor” the farming methods used.

“People need to think about sustainability — that’s what it’s all about,” said Sister Paula Revier, another member of the St. Joseph Benedictine community. As defined by the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This means adopting a lifestyle that embraces the environmentalists’ three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Sister Paula has kept notes of the sisters’ first formal efforts to pursue sustainability by recycling the cardboard and paper collected at both the monastery and the College of St. Benedict. Today, the recycling program is such that “we’re not limited at all” in what can be recycled, including buildings, she said.

In addition, the sisters have explored other avenues of sustainability, resulting in, for example, the founding of the St. Joseph Farmer’s Market, which directly connects consumers with producers, and the Common Grounds Garden, which involves people from the larger community in organic food production.

In 1990, the sisters approved a community position statement in which they affirmed “the Benedictine values of reverence for all creation and a sense of oneness with the land” and set forth their commitment to “responsible stewardship” of the earth’s resources and “simplicity of life.”

Little Falls Franciscans

The Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls have posted a nearly identical statement on their Web site, “The world is our cloister,” a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, is boldly proclaimed on their home page. A subsequent page states that one aspect of the sisters’ vocation is “a simple nonviolent lifestyle characterized by reverence and concern for all of creation.”
This includes a commitment to “engage in creative practices that confront exploitation of the earth and promote communion with the earth,” said Franciscan Sister Carol Schmit, quoting from a community statement last revised in 1995.

Sister Carol lives and works at Clare’s Well, the sisters’ spirituality farm located near Annandale, Minn. A large farmhouse, hermitages, garden space, a lake and woods occupy the 40-acre site. Operated with a view to sustainability, the main focus of Clare’s Well is to “provide an experience” — one that “fosters a connection between people and the earth” and one of “coming in touch with God’s revealing God’s self to us in nature and environment,” Sister Carol said.

Produce from the organic gardens, eggs from the chickens, milk and cheese from the goats and fish from the lake provide much of the food consumed by the staff and guests at Clare’s Well, which is open year-round. While the operation is small, Sister Carol said it provides a means of forming community with guests and neighbors, and it is a “commentary” on care of the earth.

Franciscan Sister Agnes Soenneker, another member of the Clare’s Well staff, said that other Franciscan ventures, such as the possibility of erecting a wind turbine at some future date, and the “huge gardens” at their Little Falls site are also commentaries. By making garden plots available to the public free of charge, the sisters have an opportunity to teach and demonstrate organic gardening.

The Crosiers
Orders of religious men have also been busy pioneering ethical land use. The Crosier fathers and brothers, having established Onamia’s Holy Cross Priory in 1910 on 200 acres that had been “clear cut” by logging companies in the 1890s, teamed up with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the 1950s to reforest the land.

“We planted thousands and thousands of trees,” remembers Crosier Father Richard John, who currently pastors St. Mary Parish in Milaca. Procurator and business manager of the Crosier Order from 1951 to 1962,
Father John said he directed the reforestation project, and the Crosiers did all the planting — a three-year effort — while the DNR supplied the seedlings and planting machinery.

“The trees have grown up and the forest is there,” Father John said, adding that the majority of seedlings planted were white pine, which is what had comprised the forest originally.

Another Crosier environmental effort begun in the 1950s involves an island half a world away. The delicate ecology of the rain forest of Papua, Indonesia, has been threatened by mining and logging operations for years. In addition, commercial fishing operations continually threaten the ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean around it.

The mangrove, wild sago and bamboo forests of Papua are home to numerous tribes of primitive peoples who have lived in rare, true sustainable community with their environment since the stone-age. The Crosiers minister to the Asmat people and one aspect of that ministry, according to Dave Kostick, director of development at the Crosier Provincial Residence in Shoreview, Minn., is to continually confront the commercial forces that would destroy the rare ecology of the area and, consequently, the people themselves.

St. John’s Abbey

Finally, the 2,500 acres of land owned by the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville serves as a state game refuge, according to John Geissler, arboretum education coordinator. Yet “controlled” deer hunting does take place on the refuge periodically, Geissler said, since the gray wolf, the deer’s natural predator, no longer ranges in central Minnesota, and an overpopulation of deer can do tremendous damage to the trees.

The trees, particularly the oak trees of the acreage, must be protected, Geissler said, since less than one-half of 1 percent of Minnesota’s native oak savannah still exists.
St. John’s is involved in a 10-year plan to not only preserve the oak savannah, but to restore the native prairie and wetlands of the acreage. The arboretum, dedicated in 1997, is part of that plan, and the primary focus of the arboretum project is education.

“It’s a living library,” Geissler said, that consists not only of the precious native oak trees, but of a huge variety of deciduous trees and the pines. He added that the pine plantations, some of which are 110 years old, were started with seed from the Bavarian homelands of the community’s founders.

This article originally appeared in the St. Cloud Visitor . Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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