A living tradition of care
In 1953, the Benedictine sisters set down roots on a hill overlooking Lake Mendota and the skyline of Madison, Wisconsin. The original 40 acres consisted of farmland cleared in the early 1900s. Today, Holy Wisdom Monastery includes 130 acres with a 10,000-year-old glacial lake, wooded nature trails, restored prairie, gardens and orchards.
Reverence for creation is a deeply-held Benedictine value. The sisters, in partnership with coworkers, hundreds of volunteers, agencies and organizations, do their part to preserve an oasis of quiet beauty where all can come and experience God’s presence.
Lost Lake lies at the western boundary of Holy Wisdom Monastery. Originally more than nine acres in surface area, the basin had been reduced to less than two acres due to sedimentation from surrounding farming practices and residential development. Eighty-five thousand cubic yards of accumulated silt have been removed from the lake and the shoreline restored with native plants.
Restored to near its original depth, the lake again acts as a natural deterrent that detains and filters water that would otherwise wash downstream to neighboring properties and Lake Mendota. More than 200 acres of land drain into Lost Lake. This restoration was designated a demonstration project of the Lake Mendota Priority Watershed in 1996. The project received a Yahara Lakes Association Certificate of Appreciation in 1997 and the Dane County Waters Champion Award in 2005.
When settlers arrived in Wisconsin in the early 1800s, prairie covered more than two million acres of the state. Today, fewer than 10,000 acres of prairie remain. Holy Wisdom Monastery is returning much of their land to pre-settlement conditions. The sisters believe this land is a gift of natural beauty to be shared with all who come to Holy Wisdom Monastery.
Prairie restoration activities began in 1996 and continue today. To date, more than 120 acres have been restored to upland prairie with donated seed or seed collected by volunteers and college interns. Each year, 10 to 20 acres were hand sown with a large variety of native Wisconsin prairie flowers and grasses. These plants have long, deep root systems which prevent soil erosion. This project received the Wisconsin Business Friend of the Environment Award in 1998.
A detention basin was created on the eastern side of the property; a soil berm was built below the natural grass waterway. Prairies can absorb 5–7 inches of rain within an hour.
The structure can hold, purify and slowly release 10.5 acre-feet of water, providing a key part of the environmental protection of the north shore of Lake Mendota. In recognition of these environmental efforts, this wetland preserve was made a Lake Mendota Priority Watershed Demonstration Project.
After restoring much of the land, the sisters decided to decommission their energy inefficient building and hired Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. to design and construct a new eco-friendly building for them. The sisters dedicated their new monastery building in November 2009 and received the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in March 2010. The U.S. Green Building Council awarded Holy Wisdom Monastery a Platinum rating – earning 63 out of a possible 69 points under LEED-New Construction (NC) version 2.2, making it the highest-rated LEED-NC building in the United States to date!
Wisdom Prairie Project
In September 2012, Holy Wisdom Monastery purchased an additional 53 acres of land adjacent to the grounds. $1.9 million was raised to purchase the land and begin the initial phase of restoration. This land is important in creating a ‘green necklace’ of land between Governor Nelson State Park and the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, Wisconsin to protect Lake Mendota. Future plans include restoring part of the land to oak savanna. The goals of the project are to:
- Conserve valuable open space along the north side of Lake Mendota in a rapidly developing area;
- Reduce runoff of pollutants, especially phosphorous, into the Lake Mendota watershed due to this parcel’s proximity to the chain of lakes;
- Partner with Dane County to construct a bike trail to serve the cycling community on the north side of Lake Mendota.
Friends of Wisdom Prairie
The Friends of Wisdom Prairie group, dedicated to caring for the earth at
Holy Wisdom Monastery, started in 2014. Friends enjoy walking and working the land, volunteer opportunities in ecological land management, hands-on land management, guided tours to learn about seasonal changes on the prairie, dinner lectures at the monastery by noted speakers and outings to other natural areas to learn how they care for the earth.
Holy Wisdom Monastery installed 463 new solar panels in 2014 and became Madison Gas and Electric’s largest solar customer. The total solar capacity at 145.3 kW will provide approximately 60% of the monastery building’s energy use. The sisters’ goal is to some day generate 100% of the energy needs here.
The sisters continue to receive awards for their work at Holy Wisdom Monastery.
- International Assisi Award, from the Society for Conservation Biology for more than 60 years of conservation efforts.
- Green Professional, Green Masters Program at UW-Madison School of Business
- 2010 Top Ten LEED Project (#5) from Interiors & Sources Magazine
- 2010 BUILD Wisconsin Award in the Design Build – New Construction Category from the Association of General Contractors of Wisconsin
- 2010 Design-Build Award of Merit from the Design Build Institute of America (DBIA)
- 2010 Best Green Building from Midwest Construction Magazine
- 2010 Sustainability & Energy Efficient (SE2) Award of Merit from the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance
- Highest-Rated LEED-NC v 2.2 Building in the United States
- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-New Construction (NC) Platinum Certification from the United States Green Building Council
- 2009 Top Project Award from Wisconsin Builder Magazine
- 2009 Aon Build America Merit Award from The Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America
- Creation Care Award, National Religious Partnership for the Environment
- Dane County Waters Champion Award
- 2003 Business Forum’s (Dane County) Athena Award
- Leopold Restoration Award (Virginia M. Kline Award for Excellence in Community-Based Restoration) from the Friends of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum
- Conservation Award, Downtown Kiwanis, Madison, WI
- Project Equality Religious Sponsor Award and Millennium Award
- Project Equality Religious Sponsor Award
- Wisconsin Business Friend of the Environment Award
- Women of Distinction Award, YWCA Madison, WI
- Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award, Rotary Club of Madison, WI
- Investing in People Award, Dane County, WI
- Yahara Lakes Association Certificate of Appreciation
- Demonstration Project of the Lake Mendota Priority Watershed
For more information about the environmental history at Holy Wisdom Monastery, contact Dr. Amy Alstad at email@example.com, 608-836-1631, x123.
Restoration timeline at Holy Wisdom Monastery:
► 1953: Sisters arrive in Madison and climb to the top of what they now call “God’s Hill” located at Holy Wisdom Monastery
► 1950s: Trees planted on grounds
► 1960s: Ended some of the farming on land and started the return to a pre-settlement condition
► 1970s: Conservation practices include contouring and planting of grass waterways in the areas still farmed
► 1980s: Conversion of highly erodible hillsides to woodland and savanna areas using the government Conservation Reserve Programs; started holding volunteer workdays
► 1990s: First master plan for the monastery grounds completed; restored Lost Lake to original size; built detention basin, started planting prairie
► 2000s: Restored over 100 acres of prairie; built one of the ‘greenest’ buildings in the country
► 2010s: Became MG&E’s largest solar customer; successfully completed $1.9 million Wisdom Prairie Project to acquire and start restoring 53 acres of farmland into native prairie and oak savanna; created Friends of Wisdom Prairie group to support environmental efforts through bimonthly workdays and educational outings, dinner lectures and grounds tours; removed hedgerows as a first step to creating an oak savanna; received international Assisi Award in 2017 for more than 60 years of environmental work from the Society for Conservation Biology.Become a Friend
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