New-look US religious: Al Gore's latest 'eco-justice' disciples

New-look US religious: Al Gore's latest 'eco-justice' disciples


According to a recent feature in the US religious weekly, National Catholic Reporter (22 February 2008), large numbers of progressive women religious across North America are embracing environmental issues as the prime focus of their ministry. As one Mercy Sister expressed it, 'We have a small window of opportunity to turn things around, to preserve the planet in some way'.

A similar trend has been observable in Australia.

Underlying the green sisters movement is the common thread of a 'new cosmology' that recognises the 'interrelatedness' of all creation from stardust to rain forests to the sisters themselves. These sisters are convinced that their 'new scientific understanding of the creation events unfolding even now' connects with their own founding charisms, as well as the pressing needs of what they see as a planet in distress, along the lines described by the climate change evangelist Al Gore.

'I remember [influential environmentalist and Dominican sister] Miriam Therese MacGillis saying to us for the first time, 'We don't walk on the earth; we are of the earth,'' recalled Sr Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence.

Big picture

While hybrid cars, wind power, and even long-life energy saving light bulbs cost more than conventional options, the sisters choosing them affirm that they are looking at the 'big picture'.

'As Al Gore would say, it is a moral issue to reduce our carbon footprint today,' said Sr Corinne Wright, environmental initiatives manager for the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia, whose Aston, Pennsylvania, complex runs on clean energy. 'It is a choice that is somewhat more expensive. We are sacrificing in other ways so we make less of a footprint.'

Sarah McFarland Taylor, an associate professor of religion at Northwestern University and author of Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (Harvard University Press, 2007), says she's not surprised that 'bioneering' sisters are early responders to what many consider today's most pressing social justice issue, that is, the needs of a planet beset by pollution, man-made climate change and threatened natural resources.

'I think this is another case of sisters discerning a calling to respond to grave, grave problems in our world,' Taylor said.

Many American congregations are buying hybrid cars as a means of reducing their carbon footprint while incandescent light bulbs were replaced with fluorescents during one nine-month period at Mercyhurst College, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, 'reducing the emission of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide'. Mercyhurst also uses solar and wind power, and emphasises sustainability in its academic programs and campus life.

The Sisters are mindful of the 'three environmental Rs' - reduce, reuse, recycle - as they deconstruct their buildings, meaning they selectively dismantle them to salvage reusable materials such as flooring and structural timbers.

Sr Betty Cawley, a leadership team member of the Sisters of St Joseph of Boston, details the 2003 renovation that converted their 1960s Brighton, Massachusetts, mother house into the first 'earth-friendly' residence of its kind in Boston; 92 percent of the original building's materials were salvaged or recycled and all manner of earth-friendly infrastructure incorporated in the remodelled building. The 85 sisters who live in the 39 apartments in the Brighton residence have pledged to live green in their personal habits.

As property owners, teachers and educational administrators, sponsors of health care corporations, and as political activists, American women religious are well positioned to promote the green cause. They recognise the importance of what veteran green advocate Sister of Mercy Maura Smith calls the 'multiplier effect' of their work.

Sister Maura got her start back in April 1970, when as a new biology faculty member at Mercyhurst College she was 'told to do something about Earth Day.'

That 'something' eventually led to a major commitment by the college to advance sustainability, said Mercyhurst history professor Chris Magoc, who has worked closely with Sister Maura as a member of the college's 'Green Team,' which has convinced administration to purchase at least 10 percent of its total energy from wind sources, secured funding to install solar panels, and hosts an annual Earth Day event now named in honour of Sister Maura.

Its students are embracing the green mission. Recently a grass-roots campaign won approval to charge a $5 'green fee' per student per semester, which will bring in $40,000 a year to fund green projects on campus, and the school approved an interdisciplinary sustainability studies minor.


Congregation-sponsored health care systems also have been leading the way on 'eco-justice'. The Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare system was recognised for the second time as a 'Champion of Change' by Hospitals for a Healthy Environment. In October 2008, the Wheaton campus will be one of 100 national sites hosting the live stream broadcast of the Earth Charter Summit featuring Al Gore.

Sarah McFarland Taylor says the voices of the members of the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious - all superiors of religious orders - are highly influential in consolidating the green sisters movement, citing the statements, conferences and presidents' addresses that have emerged in recent years, containing 'an enormous amount of environmental content. That is 1,000 women, virtually all in leadership positions.'

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