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Atchison Sisters find it ‘easy being green’

Vast gardens at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison provide the Benedictine Sisters with the opportunity to enjoy fresh produce and reduce their carbon footprint. LEAVEN PHOTO BY OLIVIA MARTIN

by Olivia Martin

ATCHISON — For most people, “going green” is the catch phrase of the century.

And with the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home” in 2015, the faithful have been taking the care of the planet and creation even more to heart.

But for monastics like the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica here, going green is nothing new.

In fact, it’s so ingrained in their daily lives, it’s practically organic.

“Being a Benedictine monastic community,” said Sister Judith Sutera, OSB, “our stability has always been important to us.”

Stability is one of the three vows the Benedictines profess, which refers to not only a lifelong commitment to community, but also a direct commitment to the monastery where they will live the rest of their lives.

“So, we’ve never been ones to foul up a place and move on,” she said. “The release of ‘Laudato Si’’ simply gave the theology behind what we’ve always done, so we [keep] gradually evolving.”

In the early days of the Mount, many of the Sisters came from humble farming backgrounds.

And from those rural beginnings came an almost instinctive preservation of resources.

“We’ve been on this piece of land since 1877,” said Sister Judith, “and this building (the current monastery) was built in 1900.”

The Sisters at that time designed the monastery so that water from the drain pipes and gutters was directed into underground cisterns.

“Anytime there has been a drought or water restrictions,” she said, “we’ve had no problem taking care of our crops.

“Those girls knew what they were doing!”

Today, the Sisters are all the more aware of the critical state of the depletion of the earth’s resources — and their actions reflect it.

“It’s a constant thing,” said Sister Elizabeth Carrillo, OSB. “As technology changes and gets more energy-efficient, we are always having to figure out when to upgrade.”

The Mount is progressively making use of high-efficiency lighting within its buildings and boasts three sets of 50 kilowatt solar panels.

Costing roughly $150,000 each, the payback for the panels is between 15 and 18 years.

“We’ve been happy with the production,” said Sister Elaine Fischer, OSB. “It doesn’t cover all of our costs, but it cuts it.”

The panels account for roughly 30 percent of the electrical costs of the Sophia Center, the Sisters’ retreat center; five percent in the Dooley Center, the Sisters’ retirement home; and another five percent for the rest of the monastery.

The Sisters have also begun investing in hybrid cars, reducing packaging by purchasing food and personal care items in bulk, and have supported several educational projects through the Wangari Foundation.

Wangari Maathai, an alumna of then-Mount St. Scholastica College, founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977, an organization focused on environmental conservation, planting trees and women’s rights.

And in 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainability and peace.

“She always said she was who she was because of the Sisters,” said Sister Judith.

“[Her Nobel prize represented] a new level of commitment for us,” she added. “Some of her classmates decided to honor her by giving us an endowment just for promoting Wangari’s values.”

The Wangari Foundation is primarily for public education and has helped fund such projects in Atchison as a greenhouse at Maur Hill-Mount Academy, research at Benedictine College and workshops at the Sophia Center.

Amid their continuous fidelity to composting, beekeeping, gardening organically and reduction of single-use plastics, the Sisters of the Mount never lose sight of the reason behind their efforts.

“We are not just doing this as environmentalists,” said Sister Judith. “We are doing this as religious.”

“We can’t all be involved in helping poor women at the Keeler Center,” she continued, referring to the Benedictine Sisters’ ministry in Kansas City, Kansas, “but we can all do our little bit to conserve the earth.

“The earth is the most critical thing we have.”

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Olivia Martin

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