Care for the Earth: A Longstanding Monastery Tradition

Neal Smith Benedictine Bridge, Care for the Earth, Volunteers Leave a Comment

Care of the earth is nothing new at Holy Wisdom Monastery. As the story goes, three sisters went into the countryside outside of Madison in the early 1950s looking for a site suitable for a new Benedictine monastery. They had come from Sioux City, Iowa at the invitation of the first Bishop of the Madison diocese. What they found was a hilltop in the country with an unparalleled vista of the Madison skyline. After saying a few prayers and burying medals of St. Benedict, they set out to acquire the land.

Rooftop gardens at Holy Wisdom Monastery -- one of the components of LEED certification at the Platinum level. Copyright 2009 Fotografix photos from Hoffman LLC.

Once they tracked down the current owner, they negotiated for the 42.5 acres that included Lost Lake and the hilltop (often referred to as “God’s Hill”). What attracted them to this place? I’m sure it was the natural beauty and unique reflection of God’s creation. Thus began the tradition of care for the earth at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Several years later they acquired the balance of the 138 acres to make up the current grounds.

Until the sisters owned the property, the land was farmed, and only a few trees existed on the initial parcel. The process of returning the land to a more pre-settlement existence soon began. It started with the gradual elimination of farming, developing a plan to attract native wildlife and planting trees and bushes. In the early 1970s, conservation practices began, including the contouring and planting of grass waterways in the areas still farmed. With the 1980s came the conversion of highly erodible hillsides to woodland and savanna areas, using the government Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The 1980s also saw the first volunteer work day, a tradition that continues today.

In June of 1995 the first Master Plan for the monastery grounds was completed and unveiled. This plan included a comprehensive and aggressive choice to eliminate the balance of the farming lands and restore all possible acres to native prairie and wetlands. It also included the restoration of Lost Lake to its original size. (Lost Lake is a remaining example of a 10,000 year old glacial kettle.)

The implementation of this new plan started in 1996, with the building of the detention basin (the basin can hold and slowly drain down 10.5 acre feet of water) on the eastern side of the grounds and seeding the first 4 acres of prairie in and around it. Each succeeding year, volunteers collected seeds and seeded between 5 and 15 acres of prairie until a total of almost 100 acres was finished in 2009. Restoration of Lost Lake occurred between 1997 and 1999. The dredging was done in the winters, when the ground was frozen, to reduce environmental harm to the surrounding areas. A total of 85,000 cubic yards of silt were dredged from the lake and relocated on the grounds.

Gardening and orchard tending have also been a major part of the monastery’s relationship with the earth. For years the sisters and guests have enjoyed the fresh apples, pears, lettuce, spinach, onions, squash, tomatoes and other monastery-grown produce. And don’t forget the cider! Ten percent of all production is earmarked for donation to local food pantries.

With this long tradition of “care of the earth,” it is no wonder that the deconstruction of Benedict House and construction of the new monastery building would be “green.” Planning began in 2006 and, early on, included the commitment to make the project as earth-friendly and sustainable as possible. The requirement that the project attain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification was written into the first draft of the design/build contract with Hoffman, LLC. The new monastery building was designed with three key criteria: supporting the mission and vision of the monastic community, attaining Platinum LEED certification and achieving cost effectiveness (good stewardship of resources).

The new monastery building now speaks for itself. All three of the key criteria were attained without compromise. The building stands as a living example of the long tradition of care of the earth at Holy Wisdom Monastery.

And the tradition continues. Volunteer work days, internships, group volunteer activities and co-worker activities will carry on the needed work in the prairie, gardens, lake, woodlands, savanna and orchards. The work could not be done without the thousands of volunteer hours each year. All are invited to offer their time, talent or resources to further the environmental works of the monastery. Please join us for the next work day on Saturday, May 22, 2010.

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