Ever since the days of pioneer homesteaders, the Sisters of Loretto have lived amid the rolling hills of central Kentucky. They taught in rural schools, still operate a corn and soybean farm and offer retreats on their 780 acres of prime agricultural land.
The sisters would have liked to continue quietly caring for their land, but for the process known as fracking—the hydraulic fracturing of bedrock and insertion of massive amounts of water, chemicals and sand into the earth to release oil and natural gas. Fracking changes any landscape irrevocably.
As a result of the fracking boom, Williams Companies, a Tulsa-based pipeline concern, sought to construct a pipeline beneath the sisters’ farmland in Nerinx. The pipeline would transport propane, methane and other toxic, flammable natural gas by-products. The sisters were concerned about leaks and contamination to the ground water or, worse, explosions, which have occurred elsewhere with other pipelines.
The Loretto sisters sprang into action. They showed up at public meetings singing “Amazing Grace” to draw attention to their anti-fracking, anti-pipeline message. They teamed up on a petition drive with the Dominican Sisters of Peace and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who also live in this area known as the “Kentucky Holy Land,” collecting some 36,000 signatures. They traveled door-to-door urging their neighbors to reject lucrative payments Williams offered for access to the land.
In a classic David versus Goliath struggle, the sisters managed to defeat the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline—at least for now. These mostly septuagenarian women have become a public face of opposition to fracking and to the oil and gas pipelines that fracking demands. As the controversy continues over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would cut through America’s heartland, the Loretto sisters’ example offers a powerful model for effecting change and an eloquent witness to care of the earth.
“The word trust, I think, is what binds us to this land,” says Sister Maria Visse, who oversees the Kentucky motherhouse. “This is what we’ve been entrusted with. And so over the years, we’ve tried to respect what the land gives.”
The women who once taught the children of European immigrant farmers are carving out a new educational role. “We are hoping to accomplish a process of education that will help people to understand what they’re dealing with,” Sister Maria says. “What are we doing to our natural resources? And who owns the natural resources? Corporations feel they own the air, own the land, own the water, own it enough that they can pay to take a piece of it.”
In large ways and small, Catholic sisters across the country are pointing to the future by practicing environmental leadership. The Sisters of Providence in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind., have turned their once under-used college campus into a 343-acre organic farm.
At Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kans., the Benedictine sisters drive a fleet of hybrid cars and have installed solar panels on the roof of the monastery. Benches on the monastery grounds are made of recycled trash. The Mount sisters are also raising bees to address the sharply declining number of natural pollinators.
Cabins used for retreats on the Loretto sisters’ property are constructed out of cedar, poplar and oak collected from fallen trees in the surrounding woods. “In nature, everything can be transformed, everything has potential,” says Susan Classen, who oversees the retreat cabins for the Loretto sisters.
The work of the Loretto sisters reminds us that humans are but co-tenants on this planet, living in communion with all other living things. Sister Maria calls our natural surroundings “a gift of creation.” To disrespect that gift, she notes, is to “be divorced from God.”
In his book Always We Begin Again, John McQuiston II offers people of faith a prescription to live by. “Everything we have is on loan,” McQuiston says. “Everything we have is ours in trust, and must be returned at the end of our use of it…in as good or better condition than it was when given into our custody.” We have only to look to the efforts of so many Catholic sisters to see that belief in action.