Sisters of Earth seek planet literacy, look to indigenous wisdom at upcoming conference

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by Sharon Abercrombie

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In the summer of 1994, 65 religious women gathered at St. Gabriel Monastery in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, to share their emerging environmental dreams with one another.

They named their new vision circle the Sisters of Earth.

The women pictured themselves opening retreat centers and study programs in earth literacy, based on the new cosmology as written about and taught by cosmologist Brian Swimme and "geologian" Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry. One sister dreamed of co-founding a green "ecozoic" monastery with Berry, her mentor. Another aspired to have her community open a green-ministry-of-the-arts shop where people could purchase calendars and posters with Earth spirituality themes.

Their shared vision was to heal both the human spirit and the planet's life-support systems, recalls St. Joseph of Carondelet Sr. Toni Nash, a Californian and one of the four founding members.

Originally, the dream was incubated by Nash, St. Joseph Srs. Mary Lou Dolan and Mary Southard, and Passionist Sr. Gail Worcelo. The four women knew they needed one another's encouragement in bringing their waking dreams to fruition. They had talked to other sisters with similar untested aspirations.

What they aspired to do, after all, was all so very new. "And we didn't have the energy to reinvent the wheel," Nash said.

Were they being impractical? Indulging in fantasies? Well, hardly.

The women, whose networking membership now includes both religious and lay, have continued to meet biennially in the summer for weekend conferences throughout the U.S., with attendance growing from those original 65 to now 150 participants. Their dreams have successfully played out.

Southard, a working artist and a teacher of the universe story, founded the Ministry of the Arts center at her community's motherhouse in LaGrange Park, Illinois, the same year as the first Sisters of Earth conference. To this day, one of the center's most popular items is a yearly calendar Southard creates that features Earth and cosmological themes.

Dolan launched a master's program in earth literacy in 1997 at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. Two years later, Sr. Gail Worcelo co-founded Green Mountain Monastery in the Burlington, Vermont, diocese with Berry, Sr. Bernadette Bostwick and Sr. Rita Ordakowski.

Nash, who has had a long teaching career in ecological centers, recently completed her doctoral studies in philosophy and religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

"I would give all of these talks on the new cosmology, and I couldn't just keep hoping I had everything together," she said.

Nash's latest project has been writing a series on ecological conversion for her St. Joseph Carondelet community in California based on Pope Francis' encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

The Sisters of Earth membership includes teachers, gardeners, artists, writers, administrators, workshop and retreat presenters, mothers, contemplatives, and activists around the globe, in North and South America as well as Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The Sisters of Earth are set to next meet this summer (July 7-10) at the Presentation Retreat and Conference Center in the mountains of northern California near Los Gatos. When they gather, their circle will feature stories of activism from four indigenous women who are standing up against the damaging effects of extractive industries in their communities; among them, oil, gas, uranium, nuclear, gold and forestry.

The conference brochure states that "indigenous wisdom is most likely the closet to true Earth wisdom that we have." Here are profiles on each of the four women set to speak:

• Melina Laboucan-Massimo, of the Lubicon Cree (one of Canada's First Nations) from Little Buffalo, Alberta, Canada, has had firsthand experience of the impacts of Alberta tar sands mining on her homeland. A Greenpeace activist since 2009, Laboucan-Massimo helped lead the public outcry two years later, when 28,000 barrels of crude oil leaked from a pipeline near Little Buffalo in one of the largest oil spills in Alberta. An outspoken advocate for indigenous rights, she has authored many articles on the tar sands, as well as produced documentaries on water issues and indigenous cultural revitalization.

• Jihan Gearon, of mixed Navajo and African-American heritage, hails from Flagstaff, Arizona, where she directs the Black Mesa Water Coalition. She organizes and speaks in both North American and around the globe on issues of climate justice, the impacts of energy development and climate change on indigenous peoples and people of color. The environmental news site Grist named Gearon among its Grist 50, a list of sustainable leaders to expect to be talking about in 2016.

• Beata Tsosie-Pena has lived with the devastation of her pueblo in New Mexico caused by the manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons in Los Alamos. In addition to her role as coordinator of the Tewa Women United environmental justice program, she is a poet, musician, wife and mother who teaches writing workshops for teens.

• Medical Mission Sr. Birgit Weiler works with indigenous Awajun and Wampis who are struggling to defend their land from exploitation of oil, gold, lumber and the use of their river water in the construction of huge plants for generating energy. For more than 20 years, she has lived in Peru, where she teaches at Jesuit University Antonio Ruiz de Montoya in Lima.

The conference will feature local indigenous leaders, as well, said Sr. Maureen Wild, one of the organizers. Women from the local Mutsun Ohlone tribe of the Los Gatos area will conduct a special entryway ceremony on the conference's first day.

Nash said the conference hopes to also feature updates on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Other breakout groups are set to discuss a variety of topics, including contemplative activism, environmental justice and the rights of minority cultures, transition towns and urban ecology, and divestment from fossil fuels.

Registration is still open. For further information, contact Wild at

[Sharon Abercrombie is a frequent contributor to Eco Catholic at National Catholic Reporter.]

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Ministry of the Arts was located in Ogden, Illinois; it is in LaGrange Park, Illinios.