Shrinking religious orders take up land conservation

January 2, 2010
By Bridget MacDonald
Washington Post

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 Plainville, Mass., 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 of 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 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.

It's not just a feel-good spiritual mission. During 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 to developers.

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

She is among a growing network of Catholic sisters who have reexamined their connection to the Earth in the context of their faith. Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor of environmental and religious studies at Yale University, said the increasing involvement of religious groups in preservation is not simply a trend but also "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 Rev. Thomas Berry, who before his death in June fostered the idea that the environmental crisis must also be understood as a spiritual crisis. Sister Miriam 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 helped found the 226-acre Genesis Farm and its Earth studies center in Blairstown, N.J., in 1980, Catholic sisters across the United States and Canada have woven environmental justice and community-supported agriculture into their religious vocation.

Living in Massachusetts -- the nation's third-most densely populated state -- 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," Wilber said.

As religious orders took root across the United States in the 19th century, they built networks of schools, hospitals and orphanages to provide 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.

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 condominiums.

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.

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."