Nuns race to keep sacred grounds out of developers’ reach

By Bridget Macdonald | Medill News Service

It’s not just a feel-good spiritual mission. Over the past 40 years, as the number of Catholic nuns has plummeted, religious orders have been lured by offers to sell their land. But a New England nun has launched a faith-based mission to protect the land from developers.

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SCHOOL CLOSING: The beginning of a mission for Sister Chris Loughlin.

PLAINVILLE, Mass. — Looking over the wooded parcel her Catholic order sold in 1992, Sister Chris Loughlin stood with arms folded, the regret on her face plain to see.

But Loughlin and her fellow Dominican sisters in this town about 30 miles southwest of Boston have more than made up for the loss of 10 acres from the former orchard that was bequeathed to the order in 1949.

Gesturing to surrounding fields and forests, Loughlin explained, “Now we have these 42 acres, and 32 of them are in a conservation restriction. So no matter what happens at this point, at least the land is preserved.”

The old orchard is now home to the Crystal Springs Earth Learning Center, and the rambling farmhouse is the unassuming headquarters for a remarkable land conservation initiative, the Religious Lands Conservancy.

Launched by Loughlin in 2002 with the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition, the Religious Lands Conservancy has been instrumental in placing hundreds of acres of property owned by religious communities into conservation. With a faith-based mission to protect the earth, Loughlin has approached congregations throughout the Northeast to broach the spiritual value of conservation.

EARTH: The beginning and end

Whoever we are and wherever we go, everybody has the same final destination, according to the Bible. “All go to the same place,” the Book of Ecclesiastes says. “All come from dust, and to dust all return.

Jews commemorate this dusty fate at funerals, when the deceased are buried in simple, bio-degradable caskets that allow the body, eventually, to “mingle with the earth,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. In Israel, not even coffins are used, in order to speed up the body’s blending with sacred soil, she said.

For Muslims, being buried without a coffin is considered a parting gift to the world. “Giving your body back to the earth is seen as one of the last acts of generosity that you can do,” said Omid Safi, a Muslim scholar and author of “Memories of Muhammad,” a new biography of Islam’s founder. Islamic literature is filled with tales of flowers blooming from gravesites, Safi added.

Some Jews sprinkle the body with dust from Israel, placing it on the deceased’s eyes, forehead, heart, and, for males, the area of their circumcision, as a reminder of the covenant between God and Abraham, according to Samuel Heilman’s 2001 book “When a Jew Dies.” At graveside services, mourners will shovel dirt, preferably from the Holy Land, on the coffin, using the convex side of a shovel to symbolize the difficulty of dealing with death, until the coffin is hidden from sight.

Tradition holds that when the Messiah comes, Jews will be resurrected on the Mount of Olives in Israel, which is one reason Jewish law discourages cremation, said Hauptman. “It’s a whole lot easier to put you back together if your bones are there,” she said.

When the End of Days arrives, souls buried outside of Israel will begin an arduous journey through underground tunnels to the Holy Land. Sometimes a little bag of Israeli soil is placed with the deceased in order to help them find their way.

“If they bring a little soil with them, somehow it’s going to ease their journey,” Hauptman said.

~ Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

It’s not just a feel-good spiritual mission. Over the past 40 years, the number of Catholic nuns has plummeted 66 percent, and the number of Catholic brothers by 60 percent. The financial strain of dwindling membership has resulted in lucrative – and often attractive – offers to sell the orders’ land over to developers.

Loughlin said although religious orders are fading, their land could yet be a lasting legacy.

She is among a growing network of Catholic sisters who have re-examined their connection with the earth in the context of their faith. Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor of environmental studies and religious studies at Yale University, said the increasing involvement of religious groups in preservation is not simply a trend, but “the rediscovery of ancient traditions.”

“All the rituals of world religions are very much nature-based,’’ she said.

The green-sister revolution is rooted in the teachings of the late Rev. Thomas Berry, who before his death last June fostered the idea that the environmental crisis must also be understood as a spiritual crisis. Sister Mariam MacGillis, a Dominican nun who has been at the forefront of the movement, said Berry’s perspective shifted her work “quite radically” to encompass a respect for all life on earth.

Ever since MacGillis co-founded the 226-acre Genesis Farm Earth Learning Center in Blairstown, N.J., in 1980, Catholic sisters across the U.S. and Canada have woven environmental justice and community-supported agriculture into their religious vocation.

In a state that is the nation’s third-most densely populated, the Dominican sisters of Plainville are helping to save a critical habitat, said Bob Wilber, director of land protection for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and their foresight has helped spark conversations with other orders. “Some of the most significant land left (in Massachusetts) is owned by religious entities,” he said.

As religious orders took root across the U.S. in the 19th century, they built vast networks of schools, hospitals and orphanages to provide social services to the poor and marginalized. The rise of government and private programs, however, made many of these institutions obsolete.

In the mid-1970s, the sisters in Plainville confronted an increasingly familiar situation: fewer students were enrolling in their parochial school, and shrinking numbers of sisters meant having to hire (and pay) lay teachers.

“We converted that school building into a home for our retired sisters,” Loughlin said.

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A look at why religious orders feel connected to the land.

In a scenario faced by many Catholic orders, the cash-strapped sisters began to sell off pieces of property to help pay for the care of elderly members. In similar situations, land that was once eyed for a cemetery was split into subdivisions, and shuttered churches have been converted to million-dollar condos.

Yet Kathy McGrath of the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition said many religious groups are starting to see that the benefits of protecting land often outweighs the costs, although some still need convincing.

“It’s so important,” McGrath said, “to have someone like Chris who is connected to…”

“Old nuns,” Loughlin interjected from across the table.

McGrath laughed, and then finished her thought. “She speaks their language, and they respect her.”

McGrath acknowledged that for many religious orders that are short on cash, preserving property in a land trust or a conservation easement might seem to make little financial sense. “They are giving up rights, for very little in return monetarily,” she said.

HOLYOKE, Mass. — At this year’s annual meeting of the Trustees of Reservations, one of the state’s oldest conservation groups, the award for Conservationist of the Year went to an unlikely recipient – a community of aging nuns from one of the poorest cities in the state.

“It was very touching to be in front of a group of about 300 people who were all so very applauding of our efforts,” said Sister Elizabeth Oleksak, who accepted the award on behalf of the Sisters of Providence. “It was kind of the cream on the cake, if you will.”

The award was based on the sisters donating the “Land of Providence,” a 26-acre parcel on the banks of the Connecticut River in Holyoke, given to the Trustees of Reservations for conservation, farming and recreation.

The river was once the economic lifeblood of Holyoke. During its heyday, the small city, located 90 miles west of Boston, was a center of paper and silk manufacturing. But now a quarter of Holyoke residents live below the poverty line, with a median household income of $30,441, compared with $50,502 for the state as a whole.

Once bustling mills now loom over the river like hulking empty shells. Yet the sisters see revitalization evident at the water’s edge. “It began with our community’s mission of reaching out to women, earth and the poor,” Oleksak explained.

In 2006, the sisters struck an agreement to lease the vacant land to nonprofit organization Nuestras Raices, Spanish for “our roots,” which provides training in sustainable agriculture and farm economics for the city’s immigrant poor.

Farm program manager Kevin Andaluz said the collaboration provided an important resource “for people to eat healthy … and to give some idea to every kid of how to work the land.”

With members of the order getting older, the sisters were faced with the choice of whether to keep their land assets. Since neither Nuestras Raices nor the sisters had any expertise in long-term management, they sought help from the Trustees.

“We saw that the sisters had great interest in long-term conservation and service to community,” said Jocelyn Forbush, the regional director for the Trustees.

It was decided to protect the land in a trust, with one important stipulation: Nuestras Raices would be able to continue farming as long as possible.

Oleksak said the partnership has allowed the sisters to continue a tradition of service in Holyoke that dates to 1873, “but with a particularly important emphasis at this time on nurturing a relationship with the earth as well.”

Forbush said the project has opened her eyes to opportunities for collaboration with religious landholders in the region. It also posed interesting questions for her organization, which makes an effort to carry on the legacy of property donors.

“How do you have the spiritual or religious element come through in the way we do conservation with a sort of secular approach to the world?” she asked.

Forbush said her experience of working with a religious congregation revealed a set of shared beliefs, even if those beliefs weren’t necessarily religious.

“That doesn’t have to be about God and the church,” she said, “but it sort of comes down to this shared real sense of spirit around the earth and taking care of the earth.”

~ Bridget Macdonald | Medill News Service

Yet Loughlin has appealed to religious communities by stressing the importance of perpetuity – leaving a legacy for future generations – a concept that advocates for conservation value as well.

Although more congregations have been coming to the Religious Land Conservancy for guidance, McGrath said, the work remains urgent.

“We are kind of in a hurry to get to some of these places that have real value for conservation before they are sold.”

About 60 miles to the southeast, at the gateway to Cape Cod, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary has run a retreat center on 118 acres of waterfront property in Buzzards Bay since 1943.

Waterfront land in the area has skyrocketed in value, and the congregation has had many offers to sell. Yet the Rev. Stanley Kolasa, the center’s director, explained that “we realized that this is a gift – this is a gifted place. We want in some way to return the gift.”

With financial uncertainties prompting difficult questions, members of the congregation looked for answers at the Religious Lands Conservancy’s 2005 conference. Mass Audubon joined the conversation, and the land soon became a top priority for the state’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program.

“It blossomed into a contiguous 300 acres on the ocean,” said Mass Audubon’s Wilber. “It’s probably the last time this will ever happen with land fronting on the water.”

Just one town south of Plainville, in Attleboro, the La Salette brothers have been another success story. The order built the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in 1953 adjacent to pristine woodlands, but the area became increasingly difficult for the brothers to manage.

“That land was being abused significantly by vandals, all-terrain vehicles, they were having drug parties in the woods,” said the Rev. Roger Plante.

Plante said the La Salette brothers wanted the land to be as much of a draw for spiritual reflection as the shrine had become, and enlisted the help of the Religious Lands Conservancy.

Charlie Wyman, a land protection specialist with Mass Audubon who worked with the brothers, said although this was his first partnership with a religious community, “we quickly discovered while we see the property through different lenses, our goals were virtually the same: to see property protected for all time for wildlife and people.”

Plante called the collaboration “almost miraculous,” saying it enabled the brothers to extend their traditional mission of healing to include the environment.

“When we speak of reconciliation, for too many years it was between us and God, us and our neighbors, us and ourselves,” said Plante.

“But more and more, we are highlighting the need for heavy-duty reconciliation between us and the Earth.”