Sister Janet Weyker has more than a peripheral interest in renewable energy. The Racine Dominican nun runs a facility dedicated to “eco-justice”.
Our environmental reporter Susan Bence popped down to learn more about Weyker’s work and perspective. As coincidence would happen, the facility is located just south of the Oak Creek coal-burning power plant.
As I roll onto the gravel drive, the petite Sister Janet Wekyer is tending its sizable orchard. She hops aboard a recycled golf cart – it’s a gift from recent high school graduate who’s been helping at the center after school for years. Sister Janet – her green eyes flashing – zooms over to my car , saying she’s just getting the hang of driving it.
She doesn’t have much time to explain how this place came to life; a beehive inspector is about to arrive; followed by a team of volunteers.
“The way it started is, we gathered our sisters together about 100 of them, the first year of April in the year 2000. The question we wanted our sisters to talk about was..."
Sister Janet hardly takes time to take a breath AND she possesses an incredible capacity to remember exact dates.
“....where are we in ministry, or where aren’t we in ministry? One of our sisters said, ‘ever since 1862 when our community came to Racine, we’ve always been about education and just. But right now there is a critical issue and it’s justice for earth; we are not addressing environmental education in any really concrete, specific way. I’d like our community to do that.’ So six of us gathered around that idea. We ended up talking for two years. And at the end of the two years, I said, ‘you know, I’m really tired of talking about it, we’ve to to do this.’”
Perhaps it was sheer determination, or Weyker’s accumulated skills that prepared her to take on the challenge – starting with growing up on her family’s dairy farm, and racking up multiple careers, not to mention being at UW-Madison for the first Earth Day. Of course, her religious community needed to buy into the idea too; so Weyker bolstered her skills by earning an earth literacy degree, while to combed the area for the perfect site.
“In 2004 on the Feast of St. Francis no less, October 4th the community purchased these 15 acres. It had everything we were looking for: woodland, wetland, pastureland, outbuildings, space for gardening.”
How did the property become available? A miracle of sorts, Weyker says. This parcel fell in their laps after what she THOUGHT was to be the eco centers home fell through.
“Someone gave the asking price in cash, so we lost that property!”.
Even the resourceful nun was flummoxed. Then, someone suggested trying a “call for help” story in the local newspaper.
“And on May 2, 2004 the headline in the local section of the paper said “Four Dominican Nuns Almost Homeless.”.
Actually, it read “Dominican nuns are not quite homeless”; nevertheless the religious order’s leadership was not amused..... But the story got the attention of the owner of this small farm; Weyker paid him that same day.
“It had everything we wanted, accept the house wasn’t big enough, but we thought, well we can add an addition. But the community was upset about that headline in the paper, so it it took several months before we purchased the place”.
Weyker wasn’t slowed down too awfully much – five months later. – on October 18, 2004 – she moved in.
In order to preach he eco-justice Weyker needed to run a place that hummed in an eco-friendly fashion. Her first order of business was to double the farmhouse’s size.
“We ended up getting all green building material. Oh, and.we also said we want to use as much renewable energy in the process as we could. So we have the 55 solar panels on the south side...." - they are installed on the neighboring 1870 vintage tool barn, as for the house. - ..”we have the solar panels for hot water on this side of the house. This side of the house, the 1912, had no insulation whatsoever, so they put in bio-based foam insulation and eco-shake shingles that are made out of recycled rubber and plastic.”
Later an eco-classroom and library was erected; its foundation rests on the farm’s original log house. Weyker took a breath and wondered how she’d managed the classes single-handedly. That lead, circuitously, to the center’s final renewable energy investment - the shiny wind turbine we see gleaming beyond a bank of trees.
“We were getting school tours and summer camps, programs for adults. I realized, I can’t keep up with this; so I went to a granting source to see if we could get funding to hire someone, and this group said, ‘no we don’t do that kind of funding, but why don’t you have wind?’ So we ended out with this Bergy Excel - S system.”.
The center produces 90 percent of its energy on site; and that’s not factoring Weyker’s contribution.
Springtime brings school groups by the busload to explore here They cozy up to the resident alpacas; feed the goats – if they can coax them off their newly-sodded rooftop; and sometimes hold a freshly laid egg in their hands.
“It gets into sort of a squat position and then it pops out. And when it comes out it’s all wet, and it’s got what is called a bloom on it, and you pick this egg up and you can see it shiny and moist and warm and we pass it around. That’s an awesome experience for kids; they’ll remember where eggs come from and what makes chickens happy. You know, there’s some intangible things."
Weyker says weeks of planning goes into preparing for summer camp season – when groups of 25 children come for a week at a time..
“We’re going to take time every single day to do a “wonder and awe piece” with the kids. They’re going to go away someplace and then observe something up close. Even looking at the leaf of that hazelnut tree. Look at that pattern there; the edges, the veins, the rhythm, the harmony that’s there. So we’re going to be doing that and the kids will get a chance to journal and draw.”
Strolling the center’s gardens – it’s energy efficient everything – dodging the paths of roosters and geese, it’s easy to forget just a few miles north stands an imposing coal burning power plant. Weyker describes its proximity is a sheer coincidence; yet admits, its presence might contribute to the sense of urgency that underpins her work.
“We can do our little bits, but that’s not going to be enough. You know, if we have enough people to tip the balance being concerned about it, we can turn this thing around. But as I say, our window is small.”
Her window of time with me has closed – a group of high school volunteers from La Grange IL just rolled in to help with some chores.
Weyker has her work cut out for her; the teens have never stepped foot on a farm – let alone performed a chore. So she’ll warm them up with a tour.