Rural religious take to the highways and byways
Brother Joseph Kronebusch, O.C.S.O. tends to lilies on the grounds of New Melleray Monastery in Iowa. The flowers are not only beautiful but also provide habitat for endangered pollinators. (Courtesy of the monks of New Melleray.)
While the glories of God’s creation are often writ large in pastoral settings with waving wheat and mountains majesty, life in rural America is not without its problems. Joblessness, isolation, addiction, pollution, and lack of access to infrastructure, internet, safe water, food, and healthcare all rank as significant challenges for people living in the country. Religious communities have gone out of their way in more ways than one to meet these challenges. In the following pages, VISION shines a spotlight on the positive impact religious are having on the U.S. rural landscape.
Trappists nurture the land under them
The Trappist monks of New Melleray established their abbey in farm country after leaving the original Mount Melleray in Ireland during one of the worst ecological disasters of the past two centuries: the Irish Potato Famine, which killed roughly a million people. Thus, the monks’ stewardship of the property surrounding their eastern Iowa monastery is built on a deep respect for natural balance in God’s creation.
Today the spiritual descendants of their Irish founders are committed to organic gardening, sustainable farming, and land conservation. In recent years they even suspended cultivation on some of the land so that it can return to a natural state. “We have come full circle as we are now converting some farm acres and field edges back to native prairie to improve soil health, control run off, and provide habitat for endangered pollinators and butterflies,” writes Brother Joseph Kronebusch, O.C.S.O. (photo above).
The monks’ interest in the land is very much connected to their spirituality. When they are not keeping to their schedule of numerous prayer periods each day, they tend to a large garden (among other types of labor). “Work in our organic vegetable garden and orchard can be an especially rich experience for the contemplative mind,” continues Kronebusch, “as you are all at once immersed in the beauty of God’s creation, serving the needs of your brothers, and in solidarity with the earth and all its peoples.”
Eco-ministry flowers at the White Violet Center
Since 1996 the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana have sponsored a multifaceted environmental justice ministry that ranges from raising a herd of alpacas to offering educational workshops. Like similar centers sponsored by religious communities, a central focus of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice is on raising animals and plants using best environmental practices. In addition, the center also offers a hiking trail, a farm store, cooking classes, and opportunities for the public to participate through volunteering or interning.
The sisters founded the center as part of their commitment to sustainable living. They describe their mission as Sisters of Providence as an effort to create a “more just and hope-filled world through prayer, education, service, and advocacy.”
Dominican sisters nurture nature in the heartland
At the Heartland Farm in Kansas, the Dominican Sisters of Peace work daily to keep their corner of the world in sync with nature. The 80-acre farm was founded as a Dominican project in 1987 when three sisters started it as a way to showcase sustainable practices. Since that time, the farm has evolved into a number of initiatives. Among them are: organic gardening and farming, a hermitage, an art studio, an alpaca herd, production and sales of handmade products (from soaps to string bags), workshops in eco-friendly practices, and public events to promote earth-friendly practices. The three on-site sisters work with paid staff and volunteers to support the Heartland Farm.
Brother rooted in a healthy environment
"I’m out there,” says Brother Nick Renner, C.PP.S. about his approach to soil and water conservation in rural Ohio. But no matter how extreme his approach may seem to some, the 12 farmers who rent land from the Missionaries of the Precious Blood in Central Ohio have to abide by strict rules set down by Renner, a lifelong environmentalist and the informal “eco-point-man” for his community. Rental farmers must adhere to practices that will ensure clean water and healthy soil.
Most people don’t expect a Catholic brother to be immersed in the world of cover crops, fertilizer runoff, soil erosion, and other issues key to a healthy environment, but Renner says his rural advocacy work fits seamlessly into his calling to be a brother. “We always try to be on the front edge [of environmental practices], and that fits into my spirituality. We want to baptize our children with clean water; no one likes to have to use someone else’s dirty water. The spiritual connection is more complicated than that, but that is one way to look at it.”
Renner was raised in an Ohio farm family, and the Missionaries of the Precious Blood community put his agricultural skills to work early on. Although the community no longer directly engages in farming, Renner continues to manage the land and hold multiple roles in rural advocacy—through Ohio Extension, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), and until recently through his position on the board of supervisors for the Mercer Soil and Water Conservation District. In 2013 he received the Archbishop O’Hara Advocacy Award for Rural Ministry from the NCRLC.
Sister of Mercy migrates to borderland ministry
Working with migrant farmer workers and families in Central Florida for 32 years was a privilege and a pleasure,” says Sister Alicia Zapata, R.S.M. Zapata says her longtime ministry with migrant workers was a natural path for someone whose community, the Sisters of Mercy, is dedicated to serving the poor.
Not long ago Zapata volunteered with other religious at the border in El Paso, Texas, welcoming immigrant families to the United States and helping them in the next step in their journey. Some of the El Paso immigrants were seeking asylum, but other immigrants also come to help harvest crops. “The Sisters of Mercy are women of faith who commit their lives to God and their resources to serve, advocate and pray for those in need around the world.” Migrant workers are frequently new immigrants from Central America, Mexico, or Haiti who tend to face low pay, poor housing, and difficult work conditions. Many are Catholic and find support in the church, including ministers like Zapata.
O.M.I. priests bring vision to an ecological center
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.s) run a nature preserve and learning center in Godfrey, Illinois that is dedicated to a big vision of ecological justice. La Vista Ecological Center in Godfrey, a small town just north of St. Louis, hopes to spread respect for the natural world and be a place of refuge for both people and native species. La Vista is also located within 255 acres of O.M.I. property that includes the O.M.I. formation house, which serves as the training grounds for men who have joined the community. The proximity ensures that new priests and brothers are exposed to and often involved in the center.
In 2002 the O.M.I. priests and brothers launched La Vista (Spanish for “The View” because the property is on bluffs above the Mississippi River). The center keeps open a nature preserve that guards native habitat, hosts a community garden, encourages on-site retreats, offers opportunities to learn more about environmental issues and related spirituality, and encourages volunteers to get their hands dirty while keeping the operation afloat.
Glenmary plants a country church
Thanks to the Glenmary Priests and Brothers, Union County, Tennessee has a new permanent Catholic church, St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish. Dedicated in Maynardville in late 2018, parishioners include longtime residents of the area, immigrant families, new-to-the-area retirees, and resort-area homeowners. Previously parish members had worshipped in a storefront church where Glenmary had begun gathering people in 2011. Parishioners themselves provided much of the labor in building the church.
St. Teresa of Kolkata is among 100+ missions-turned-permanent parishes begun by Glenmary Priests and Brothers. Glenmary—along with its sister congregation, Glenmary Sisters—has ministered in the small towns and rural areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and other states since 1939.
R.S.M. sister helps stem tide of damaging dams
Sister Edia López, R.S.M. has for many years worked with her fellow Panamanians to resist hydroelectric dams and rectify damage created by them. López and others, including many indigenous leaders, say hydro-electricity production in western Panama has come at a high human and environmental cost, without true consultation of affected communities.
Referring to the controversial Barro Blanco hydro-electric project, López told Global Sisters Report: “The human rights of the population of the Ngäbe-Buglé people in this case have in no way been respected.”
In another hydro-electric project in the region, La Cuchilla Dam, area residents lost their way of life through destruction of farmland, orchards, and fishing. Indigenous citizens of western Panama also have suffered damage to their religious practices because of dam destruction of sacred petroglyphs and natural features to rivers and land.
“The [Panamanian government authorities] never gave the correct or the complete and objective information to [the Ngäbe-Buglé people] in a way that people could understand what it was about and the repercussions and the scope of the project,“ López says. “There was no intention to consult them, I think.”
The tribe has appealed to the United Nations through the U.N. Social and Environmental Compliance Unit and also to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights.
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