How a Catholic ecology center in Wisconsin strives to change the world by changing hearts
From the outside, you cannot tell exactly what the Catholic Ecology Center is.
If you are viewing the property from the road, this 225-acre nature preserve looks almost like any of the other family farms in the small village of Neosho, Wis. But drive up the gravel path a little and you will see the main building and the side, and the Vatican flag and Marian statue. You will have noticed that most of the cars in the parking lot have rosaries hanging from the rearview mirrors.
And you will realize: This is something different.
My family is running late as we arrive at the center this morning. My toddler refused to wear her sensible walking sneakers, insisting instead on a flimsy pair of slip-ons shaped like sharks. We have come here, as we do every few weeks, for my older children to take part in the center’s homeschooling program, where my kids get to do things they could never do at home with me, like touch bugs and hold chickens.
The C.E.C. is busy today; the students and their parents congregate briefly in a clamorous group in St. Francis Hall before dispersing to their respective classes. The teens disappear outdoors and the elementary-school kids head downstairs to the St. Kateri classroom. The middle-schoolers claim the upstairs play loft known as Heaven’s Hideout, where they begin their day by memorizing the traditional Morning Offering.
Even from St. Francis Hall, the main space in the building, we can hear the children: “Oh my Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings....”
The other parents have departed; it is just me and Shark Shoes left in St. Francis Hall. We do not live close enough that it makes sense to go home during class. My toddler makes a beeline for the St. Francis altar, left over from the recent feast day celebration. I intercept her just before she has a chance to pull on the leaf-embroidered tablecloth and upset the precisely arranged candles and statuary that sit beneath a vivid copy of the San Damiano Crucifix.
I sigh. Looks like we’re going outside today, shark shoes and all.
The Catholicism of the C.E.C. is profound, but it is also organic. It feels, somehow, as if it has sprung up from the ground itself—as if Someone has taken the dust of the earth and breathed Himself into it. There are Stations of the Cross and a Marian shrine, all humble structures reflecting the natural aesthetic that surrounds them. A children’s memorial garden includes a tall steeple cross repurposed from a church and an image of Divine Mercy etched onto a stone; the garden is dedicated “to all the children who have died, including those from poverty, disease, abortion, miscarriage and war.”
In the natural play space, located in a clearing in the woods, statues of the Madonna and Child and of the Sacred Heart beam down at us from little wooden grottos affixed to the trees. My daughter is uncertain, at first. She is most comfortable propped against my hip or on my lap, observing the world. Here she is somewhat unmoored, without her older siblings to show her what to do, how to play. We all need someone to show us what to do sometimes. She is a lot like me when it comes to nature—a little reticent, a little unsure of herself. She is a third child and unaccustomed to silence.
Ecology is not a topic with which I have ever felt comfortable personally engaging. There is a picture in my head of the sort of person who can speak confidently on ecological issues and embrace a lifestyle that minimizes their environmental impact, and that picture usually resembles someone with a lot of qualities I lack. I have never been camping. I do not like bugs. I was a poor student in every natural science class I ever took in school, and if you ask me what I do to help care for creation, I will probably become very flustered and change the subject.
To be honest, it was the Catholicism, not the ecology, that first brought us here to the Catholic Ecology Center. I knew of the C.E.C. because of the involvement of several of my family members, as well as from my work as a freelance writer for the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I had covered the center several times, and when I did the emphasis on Catholicism always struck me. It was strong, unapologetic, something I had not seen to quite this extent in other groups engaged in this work.
I remember Joe Meyer, the founder of the C.E.C., saying to me in one of our first discussions: “This isn’t eco-spirituality. This is one hundred percent Catholic.” That struck me as a bold, almost risky, thing to say. I had to admire it.
The Catholicism of the C.E.C. is profound, but it is also organic.
Our family signed up for the homeschooling nature program offered by the C.E.C., and a few weeks before the school year started, an email came with some details about the class. Every child was asked to bring a reusable water bottle.
“We do discourage the use of one-time plastic water bottles,” the email read.
I blinked. It made perfect sense, of course. I wasn’t unaware of the environmental impact of single-use plastic. I simply did not think about it. I bought a pallet of single-use water bottles at least once a month, and I usually grabbed one every other day when I was going out for a walk or running somewhere with the kids.
We had reusable water bottles, yes, somewhere in the house. But I just...never reused them.
The C.E.C. is open to the public from dawn until dusk, with no charge for admittance. Memberships are available for those who want to support the mission, and members do receive discounts on ticketed programs. “But we don’t require it. We don’t want it to be like a private Catholic club,” Mr. Meyer told me when we sat down recently to review the history of the center. “We want a neighbor to be able to come by and walk the property. We want someone driving by to come and be able to see the beauty of the grounds and those aspects of our faith that are scattered throughout.”
The C.E.C. has been open less than three years, but the ministry that operates it dates back to 2016, when Mr. Meyer returned from a Marquette University High School faculty retreat with a sense that he had to do something.
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” had been released the year before. Though it built on decades of previous papal concern for the environment, “Laudato Si’” captured the Catholic and secular imagination in a way that felt new. Mr. Meyer, a biology teacher at the Jesuit-sponsored high school in urban Milwaukee, was inspired.
“I just felt I needed to do something more with my love for my faith, my love for ecology, my love for education,” he said.
American Catholics have an obligation and a need to confront overconsumption.
He created the Laudato Si’ Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to “restore humanity’s connection to the natural world through faith, education, stewardship and recreation.” In 2021 it purchased this property, a former Girl Scout camp that includes lushly wooded trails, two buildings, a pond, a half-mile of creek and two miles of river. There is also an organic farm on site that provides food to retirement communities in Milwaukee.
During its first year open, the C.E.C. saw 3,000 visitors come through the doors. In 2022 that number increased to 6,000. In addition to providing educational and formational programs that bring people into contact with God’s creation, the C.E.C. focuses on land stewardship and ecological monitoring.
Two of the people who make everything happen at the C.E.C., along with Mr. Meyer, are Theresa Liebert and Barbara Curley. Both hail from the same community in western Wisconsin, where their families embraced a “back-to-the-land” lifestyle alongside the practice of devout Catholicism.
When she interviewed for the job at the C.E.C., Ms. Liebert was impressed to see the same blend of care for creation and faith that she had experienced growing up. It was something she had never before witnessed at an institutional level, she said.
“Just seeing that it might be done well was something that greatly appealed to me,” she said.
An important part of what drew Ms. Curley to the C.E.C. was the opportunity to help people have meaningful connections with creation. She previously worked as an educator, teaching middle school math in the Bronx and later working with students at a university in Massachusetts. A trend she encountered in both settings, she said, was “a lot of despair and a lot of sorrow” that stemmed from a “lack of connection to the natural world.”
“You had no connection at all, or you were trying to be connected in a false way,” she said. In every societal or environmental problem she observed, she saw at the root of it people who struggled to understand their place in creation.
“And as soon as I saw people step into that natural setting, or step into something that was beautiful and good and whole...they were automatically healed,” she said. “There was a sense of peace that came over them.”
She observes the same thing at the C.E.C., she said. “Placing people inside of that wholeness of creation and actually asking them to look and feel and touch and know it—I just really wanted to be a part of that.”
Ecology is not a topic with which I have ever felt comfortable personally engaging.
“When you see the world starting to regress in terms of concern for the dignity of the human person, you’ll see that, simultaneously, care for the environment seems to go out the window,” said Ms. Liebert. “Or you’ll find these two are happening in tandem. On the flip side, when [caring for the environment] starts to fall to the wayside, you’ll find that the dignity of the human person is also being lost. Our Catholic identity gives us a lens to lift both up at the same time and ground them in something bigger and much more real than the secular world is able to do.”
I read “Laudato Si’” with interest when it was first written, and I was deeply moved by it—but I was also overwhelmed. I struggled to envision what this looked like in practice, especially for someone like me. I was pregnant with my first child. I lived in a suburban area and drove a lot. We were just trying to make ends meet. I was surrounded by conflicting opinions on how much power—and therefore, how much obligation to act—the individual has when it comes to the environment. Furthermore, it seemed like every decision I made could be construed, in one way or another, as harmful to the environment—so where would I even begin?
Getting American Catholics like me to care about the environment in an abstract way is incredibly difficult, said David Cloutier, professor at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.
“You have to get people to love nature,” said Dr. Cloutier, who has written four books, including Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith. “If they don’t have an affective commitment to the beauty of God’s creation, and the idea that there is a design and a wholeness to nature that can be abused and that humans have abused...it’s very difficult to get them to care about abstract issues, like carbon [emission] targets, in the future.”
Ultimately, American Catholics have an obligation and a need to confront overconsumption in their own lifestyles. But this does not mean that every person has to become a vegetarian and sell their car. These may be fruitful choices, but thinking about environmental issues in an all-or-nothing way can be more harmful than helpful.
“I used the parable of the loaves and the fishes,” Dr. Cloutier said, referring to his book. “Look, bring the loaves and the fishes that you have and put them at the service of the church and the world. [But] we can’t change things unless people make those individual choices. All of global environmental policy is important, but it has to build on the day-to-day commitment and affection we have for nature and the commitment to live in a better harmony with it.”
Dr. Cloutier confirmed that, for American Catholics, issues surrounding the environment are even more complicated because they have been coded as “progressive.”
“People who are interested in this issue tend disproportionately to come from a certain class of society that is not religious, or that is the least religious,” he said. “And, on the other hand, the most prominent [group of] American Christians come from a part of the country and a class of the society that tends not to identify with these issues.”
Catholicism is pro-creation whether one likes it or not.
The problem is that when it comes to the environment, Catholics often think like either Republicans or Democrats, when they need to be thinking as Catholics. And Catholic teaching on care for creation is quite clear, predating the papacy of either Francis or Benedict XVI.
“Catholicism is pro-creation whether one likes it or not,” said Bill Patenaude, a writer and speaker who has focused on the intersection of Catholicism and ecology for several decades. “From Genesis to the Incarnation to the sacramental life of the church, creation is championed and celebrated—and even partnered with. It’s hard to preach the resurrection of the body, or Christ’s incarnation, without giving creation a place of honor.”
Mr. Patenaude is also a retired employee of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management. He said he identifies as a traditional Catholic but is aware that many who see themselves as traditional Catholics or who hold conservative political views are reluctant to engage on this issue.
That is a huge mistake, he said.
“The fear of many on the right is, well, we don’t want to engage with those types of people,” he said, referring to progressives who care about the environment but who may also promote political views that run contrary to Catholic teaching. “Well, that’s not good enough. You have to engage them. Benedict said it, John Paul II said it. And Pope Francis is saying it now. You have to engage, you have to talk, you have to get to know people, because Satan wants to separate us and isolate us. And we can’t allow that to happen. We’re made to be in relationship. That’s how you have these conversations that can...change the heart of another human person, not to mention our own.”
I think of the things Mr. Patenaude and Dr. Cloutier told me as I watch my little girl toddle around the tree-stump table in the C.E.C.’s outdoor play space. She is smiling, offering me a meal of pine needles and bark. She is comfortable now. Her body has acclimated to the silence and remembered that it belongs in nature. That it was made precisely for nature, impractical shark shoes and all, and all she needs to do is show up with whatever loaves and fishes she has to offer, and God will do the rest.
We are made to be in relationship. You have to get people to love nature.
I remember the first time we came to this little play area in the woods a year ago, on the first day of class. I was in awe; I had never seen anything so beautiful. It was like a Tasha Tudor illustration come to life, a sprawling assortment of tree stumps and felled branches surrounded by a lush carpet of pine needles and enclosed within a shady grove of trees. A tabula rasa for the imagination of a child. The scene of the kind of play that could never take place on concrete or rubber mulch.
It took my breath away.
I would imagine that, before the fall, all of this was so simple. Creation was God’s gift to humanity, and humanity cared for it, and the act of caring for it gave people only delight and a greater understanding of God’s truths. But this is not Eden. Creation is still here, and it is still God’s gift. It can still communicate God’s truths. But over time, our hearts have become hardened. My heart had become hardened.
Here is the thing: A sin does not always start as a sin. Sometimes it just starts with thinking, “This works best for me.” And then, eventually, you realize your own selfishness, but it is so hard to change by that time. Now it is selfishness and laziness. Soon, you avoid thinking about it altogether, because it does not make you feel good. Now it is selfishness, laziness and willful ignorance: deep, rich soil that will nourish the roots of all manner of evil.
I no longer buy plastic water bottles. I found a sturdy, reusable one and I handwash it, and every time I do, I ask God to give me the grace to make bigger decisions than this one. Better decisions than this one.
We are made to be in relationship. You have to get people to love nature.
“Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment,” Francis writes in the final paragraphs of “Laudato Si’.” “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.”
He doubles down on this sentiment in “Laudate Deum,” his follow-up to “Laudato Si’” published in October. “Laudate Deum” is a document that makes an impassioned plea for greater concern about environmental issues that have been “denied” and “glossed over”—terms I feel make a fair assessment of my own attitudes toward climate change in the past.
The document concludes with a pointed reference to American greenhouse gas emissions, which are two times greater than those of our counterparts in China, according to the United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report of 2022. Francis again emphasizes individual agency, especially for those of us in the West: “We can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”
Do not think for a second that I am proud of myself for my new water bottle habit. I expect no gold stars for ceasing one small practice of reckless consumption. But it is a beginning. I only write this here because I think it is a testament to what the Catholic Ecology Center, and places like it, can accomplish. Mr. Patenaude said that we need to be willing to have the hard conversations. Sometimes those conversations are with ourselves. And sometimes we just need a place that shows us how to do that.
Ms. Curley told me that some people are surprised to hear that she is a devout Catholic who works for an ecology center, or who believes in scientific inquiry at all. There is a misconception, she said, that the Catholic faith is a “no-ask/no-answers sort of thing.”
“I feel like my role to witness is to show that as a Catholic, one of the best things we can do is inquire about the world and delve deeper,” she said. “Always ask better questions, and always wonder a little bit more.”
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a staff writer for the Milwaukee Catholic Herald. She writes every week at LPi’s (Practicing) Catholic blog.