Shrinking religious orders take up land conservation

By Bridget MacDonald
Saturday, January 2, 2010

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.

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