Popular U.S. culture presents various images of a nun: a severe woman dressed in a long black habit wielding a ruler, the cheerful nun sporting a guitar and singing hymns on the street or the wise old woman working with the poor. The one thing most people don’t envision is a highly educated senior citizen lecturing a 30-something on the importance of recycling, extolling the virtues of composting and expounding on the connections between the moral imperative to help the poor and the urgent need to protect our environment.
Yet this is exactly what happened to me. Over the course of two years, I had the great pleasure of interviewing more than 40 Catholic sisters on environmental issues. Interviews with these “green sisters” radically changed my conception of religious life and broadened my own understandings of environmental issues, peace, justice and Catholic theology.
The Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project documented the environmental activism of several communities of Catholic sisters in urban and rural settings throughout Kansas. The project began in the summer of 2011 with the Sisters of St. Joseph at the Nazareth Convent and Academy in Concordia, Kansas, with funding from the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, which documents the history of women in America. During two-hour long interviews, sisters expressed their personal histories, steps toward awareness and activism, theological understanding, and hopes for the future, all with regard to ecological issues.
Each interview expanded my limited understanding of this movement and I quickly learned that there were many other communities with similar commitments to environmental issues. Thanks to additional funding from the University of Kansas Religion in Kansas Project, interviews expanded to include a total of five communities, including: the Sisters of St. Joseph, Nazareth Convent and Academy, Concordia; the Congregation of St. Joseph, Wichita Center, Wichita; Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Wichita Center, Wichita; the Dominican Sisters of Peace, Great Bend; and Heartland Farms, a ministerial project of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, Pawnee Rock.
These and other communities across Kansas address the needs of the earth by adopting land ethics, turning grounds into community food gardens and peace gardens, farming organically and reaching out to the larger community by creating Earth literacy centers and hosting workshops, retreats and community events that encourage a connection with nature in others.
Each in her own way
Just as every individual is different and brings unique talents, every community has a different charism – or mission – and seeks to live it out in the way most suited to the membership. Activities of the individual communities ranged from buying fleets of hybrid cars to changing light bulbs, adopting land ethics to creating community gardens. Some communities focus more on spiritual or moral aspects of sustainability while others focus on the practical, economic benefits. Some sisters recalled early experiences of God in nature as fundamental to environmental awareness while others came to an understanding much later in life for more practical or economic reasons. Some sisters are not engaged at all with environmental priorities. This diversity is seen not as a weakness but as strength within the communities, as Janet Lander, a Sister of St. Joseph, explained.
“I think people do what they can do,” she said. “Part of living in community is seeing difference not as a problem, but as a richness. So, each person would be doing her best – in each her own way is fine.”
Models of democracy and the spirit in action
The activities of the community present one side of the story, and the individual narratives fill out the actions. It was often difficult to tease out an individual sister’s accomplishments as separate from the larger community activities. This is true on a small scale – within one community – all the way up to the national level.
While communities have different models of governance, it was clear that each individual contributes to the priorities and activities of the community as a whole. Concepts I originally thought were wholly unique are visible in messaging from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. While it would be easy to assume the local actions are the result of top-down priorities, this is not at all the case. It is just as likely that actions on the ground are the result of one committed individual inspiring others to action, impacting the priorities of the LCWR as a whole.
Everything is connected
Heavily influenced by the new story of science as seen in the spiritual writings of Theilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry as well as environmental writers such as Rachel Carson or Stephanie Mills, many sisters embrace principles of ecology as a natural expansion of social justice. Often, a discussion I was having with the sisters would move easily from the design of the universe as proof of an ever-present God to Silent Spring and chemical use in agricultural to issues of immigration reform, human trafficking and non-violence. The environmental priorities in a community are just one piece of the puzzle. Taking a wide-angled view does not dilute the actions; rather, it grounds the activities in the larger mission of these big-picture women.
A church tradition
While the communities here in Kansas are clearly part of a larger movement of women religious, they are also firmly rooted in a long-standing tradition within the church. As expressed in papal pronouncements from Pope Paul VI to Pope Francis, environmental destruction most directly impacts the poor and voiceless – precisely those people Christians are to protect. As a result, the Catholic response, set upon the foundation of Catholic social teachings on justice and the economy, is primarily that of environmental justice or eco-justice. Awareness of and attention to the implications of a global society with complex inter-connections prompts a focus on justice in economics and politics, which leads easily to ecology. The environmental crisis has progressed from categorically a moral issue, to a social issue, and, ultimately, a life issue.
The stories of the Green Sisters in Kansas are firmly rooted in the rural landscape, told by women who grew up in the wake of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, who remember the first time chemicals were used on the farm and who understand now the devastating effects chemicals have on the environment, but who weigh that understanding with the realities of rural life and the global economy. The stories are both inspirational and practical, connected to long-standing Catholic teaching and on the leading edge of social justice.
[Rachel Myslivy is a researcher with a master’s degree in Religious Studies and a graduate certificate in Environmental Studies whose research focuses on the intersection of religion and ecology as seen in religious communities in Kansas. She is involved in a number of environmental organizations and runs a family farm.]
Editor’s note: The Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project will be archived at the Schlessinger Library at Harvard University and available online at the University of Kansas Religion in Kansas online archive when all transcriptions are complete.