Milwaukee-area Nuns Strive to Live Pope’s Call for Environmental Action

Jun 18, 2015

Today, Pope Francis took the unprecedented step of issuing a formal opinion on the environment

His encyclical, titled On Care of Our Common Home, states humankind has a moral obligation to radically change its behavior, in order to protect the planet for future generations.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi have been incorporating that attitude into their work for years. 

With both land and human spirit in mind, the sisters have been sustainability transforming their campus off Lake Michigan.

This is the oldest Franciscan order formed in the United States. Their religious community and Motherhouse, located on 22-acres in St. Francis, date back to 1849. In 2009, the nuns began to focus intently on sustainability. 

The Land Use Co-Chairs shared the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi's plan at a gathering of conservationists.
Credit S Bence

Sister Helene Mertes says their leaders launched an environmental sustainability study.

“They appointed a land use committee; which the two of us chair,” she says. Sister Mary Lou Schramer is her co-chair.

Sister Helene says caring for the earth – as well as for people – is core to the Franciscan spirit.

The sisters received a $20,000 restoration grant to fund the removal of nine dumpsters full of invasive plants. She says the sisters whacked and sprayed them into submission.

Sister Helene says, “it’s pretty nice now, and we had an old athletic field up here that all they did was mow and mow and mow and put chemicals and now, so we decided to build an urban forest which is quite well on its way. We put in about 250 trees in there and now we’re working on the understory."

Nurturing a healthy bee population is part of the plan.
Credit S Bence

Stacks of bee boxes and pods occupy a more secluded area. Sister Mary Lou Schramer says they are the domain of a partnering beekeeping expert.

She surveys her 86 x 108 foot plot - fenced to ward off nibbling deer. She just harvested 200 onions.

Over the winter, the nuns nurtured 5,000 seedlings in the nearby convent basement. Now the plants flourish in vegetable and flower beds.

Last year, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi harvested 4,000 pounds of vegetables at their campus in St. Francis – the site of the former St. Mary’s Academy.

The garden was one of the first signs of transformation on the nuns’ 22-acre parcel.

Sister Helene says Boy Scouts have been particularly helpful in improving the forest. They helped construct a wood-chip path through the urban forest and soon will plunk benches they’ve built along the way.

And more people are volunteering.

“We have a group that we call 'Habitat Healers.' We meet every Thursday morning and we work wherever it’s needed, pulling thistles in the wetland,” Sister Helene says.

She says the nuns want to transform their headquarters into a gathering center for groups concerned about the environment. “We have a lot of work to do on that and we have to do some more planning,” Sister Helene says.

Last winter, the nuns offered some classes and lectures, and plan to schedule more.

Sister Helene hopes combining environmental stewardship with spirituality will be their legacy - despite dwindling numbers of sisters.

Sister Adele Thibaudeau, who heads the vocation office, says the last new recruit joined the order nine years ago. Yet the nun is hopeful.

“When people meet us and fall in love both with these grounds and with understanding the care of people but also of the earth and I think they pick up on that, if they don’t already have it,” Sister Adele says.

Pope Francis is counting on a global audience to mobilize the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sister Adele exudes a quiet, faith-filled optimism that solutions will come. “All will be well, we don’t know quite how, but it will be well,” she says.

Sister Helene Mertes spotted a dragonfly in the garden. "That's a sign of good environment," she says.
Credit S Bence