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Sisters answer the call of the Earth

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Catholic sisters have long been associated with activism - from fighting poverty to promoting education and social justice. Today, sisters across the country are uniting around a new cause: healing the earth. Angela Evancie has the story of two women who have brought a version of "green" Catholicism to Vermont. Angela is contributing environmental reporting this year as part of a Compton Mentor Fellowship.

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When Gail Worcelo was in second grade, she had what some might call a revelation.

(Worcelo) What happened to me is I was going to Catholic school, and we were taking a class trip.  And the class trip required that we were getting on a ferry. 

(Evancie) Her grandmother comes along…

(Worcelo) So we’re in this boat, and my grandmother says let’s go downstairs and get a cup of hot chocolate.

(Evancie) And so they do, and they sit down in a booth in this little café on the ferry.

(Worcelo) And all of the sudden all of the sisters from that school – they were in their full habits at the time – so they all came down the stairs, and I was just looking at, like I had this flash at that moment.  And to me they were like these women of God, you know, they had the cloth on, you know, and I had this visual of ‘I’m gonna be one of them when I grow up.’ 

(Evancie) Today, Sister Gail is a co-founder of the Green Mountain Monastery in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. 

[Sound of walking through tall grass]

(Evancie) She shows me around the grounds, which are on 160 acres of open field and balsam. 

(Evancie, on tour:) And so what view are we seeing out this way?

(Worcelo) So now we are looking south – the whole monastery is built in a south-facing direction.  And we’re looking at Wheelock Mountain.

(Evancie) I only need a short tour to realize that this isn’t a “typical” monastery. 

(Worcelo)…So, we are passive solar and with our solar panels, which are right here, above us, we are active solar as well. 

(Evancie) There’s a big garden and a greenhouse, and a straw bale hermitage for guests.  The chapel sits at the edge of a snowy field.  

(Worcelo) [sound of Velcro and a door opening] Okay, so this is our chapel.  We sit on these cushions, low to the ground.  We’re in a circular space.  So this is called a yurt.     

(Evancie) The monastery itself is a beautiful post-and-beam structure, heated by two giant woodstoves.  The whole place feels like an eco-retreat – and in many ways, that’s the point.

(Worcelo) The mission of our monastery is, in some reform, the healing and protection of earth and its life systems. 

(Evancie) Sister Gail and Sister Bernadette Bostwick came to Vermont from Saint Gabriel’s Monastery in Pennsylvania about ten years ago.  Sister Gail says they wanted to found a new monastery in the Catholic tradition.

(Worcelo) Because religious communities come into existence because of a cultural or political or historical urgency.  There’s an urgency in the times.  So in the past there may have been an urgency for education or an urgency for a reconstitution for a life of prayer.  And in our time, we see the urgency – the urgency is planetary. 

(Evancie) It’s spirituality meets environmentalism –  a theology inspired by the sisters’ mentor, Father Thomas Berry.  Father Berry was a self proclaimed “geologian.”

He called for humans to live in harmony with the earth.  Berry died in 2009, and was buried in a meadow here. 

(Worcelo)  As Thomas Berry would say, we go into the future as a single sacred community, or we’ll perish on the way.  We need the beauty of this planet to sustain us at every level.

If you really get that, then everything you put forth in form has to be in sync with that.  So, starting from your architecture to your energy use to your food to your purchasing power and investment power to the way you form your prayer and liturgy and ritual.

(Evancie) This fusion of faith and science isn’t unique to the Green Mountain Monastery.  In fact, Sisters Gail and Bernadette are part of a large informal network called “Sisters of Earth.”  The group has hundreds of members across the country. 

Stephanie Kaza is the Director of the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont.  She first learned about the Green Mountain Monastery at a Sisters of Earth conference a few years ago.

(Kaza) There were about 200 women there that were just on fire with straw bale building and energy retrofits and sustainable gardening, and they were gonna just save the planet their own way.

(Evancie) In Kaza’s mind, sisters are “going green” because it’s in keeping with their commitment to social justice.

(Kaza) There are, of course, nuns’ communities all across the country, and the Catholic women have long been involved in social justice concerns, back to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement, and taken up kind of the plight of the poor, or the disenfranchised, or the ill.  So this is part of a longstanding tradition, um, probably based more strongly in the justice side of the prophetic tradition and Catholic Christianity, than any deep environmental understanding.  It’s a natural extension.  

(Evancie)  There’s also a long history of progressive movements such as this one meeting opposition from more conservative members of the Church.  The Green Mountain Monastery, for example, has yet to be recognized by the local diocese.  The office of Bishop Salvatore Matano won’t claim any association with the monastery, and declined to comment for this story.  But the sisters know that their monastery is young – and they say history tells them to be patient.  It can take more than a hundred years to become an official monastery.

(Worcelo) Well I think it has to do with us, basically, ourselves first of all.  I think when we feel within ourselves that we have more members and we’re ready, when the time feels right in the spirit, the God-led spirit…When that time is right, we’ll know that, and then we would re-approach.

[fade up: “In This Holy Place”]

(Evancie) It’s just before dinner.  Sisters Gail Worcelo and Bernadette Bostwick are singing grace.  Like everything else, their music is inspired by the beauty of earth. 

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