The majestic evergreens at the end of the Holy Wisdom Monastery driveway, ranging in size from 50-80 feet tall, started as seedlings growing in strawberry boxes, recalls Sister Joanne Kollasch. “Soon after the sisters came here (in 1953) we planted seedlings from the DNR in the garden. Several years later we transplanted them to several places on the property.” About 20 years ago, these trees were replanted again to the end of the driveway. The monastery garden, also planted that first year, has grown in size and continues to provide fresh produce for sisters and guests.
From these early beginnings, the Benedictine sisters at Holy Wisdom Monastery have been caring for the earth here for over 60 years. When I asked Sister Joanne why, she explained that Benedictines follow the Rule of Benedict (RB). The Rule instructs the community to “use the goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar” (RB 31:10). To Sister Joanne this means that everything at Holy Wisdom Monastery is treated as sacred, including the land the monastery sits on.
“When we had a large number of fallen oak trees on the land as a result of a storm, the trees were sent to a mill and processed into lumber. Then we made furniture from the lumber,” explains Sister Joanne. Sister Mary David Walgenbach remembers “chair weekends” when the sisters and friends assembled the chairs. Much of this furniture from the early 1970s is still being used at Holy Wisdom Monastery today.
“The sisters’ commitment to caring for the earth has deep roots in our Benedictine spirituality,” notes Sister Lynne Smith. “Having made a promise of stability, we seek to work for the good of the place where we live—for both the people and the land which is our home.”
From St Benedict and Creation, by Anselm Grün, OSB:
“Benedict is preoccupied with careful handling of creation and praise of the Creator, who has given us this marvelous world for us to take care of it.”
Starting in 1996, the sisters at Holy Wisdom Monastery, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, began restoring a major portion of their land to pre-settlement prairie. In 1998 work began to dredge and restore Lost Lake, a 10,000 year old glacial lake on the monastery grounds, and its surrounding wetlands. Today the sisters continue to work diligently with coworkers and volunteers to restore the land to the wetlands, open prairies and oak savannas the first settlers saw when they arrived in this area over 185 years ago.
In 2014 the Friends of Wisdom Prairie group was created and is dedicated to caring for the earth at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Greg Armstrong, director of land management and environmental education, oversees the restoration efforts and provides opportunities for the Friends to learn how to care for the earth here and wherever they may be. In addition to planting prairie, the latest work includes removing invasive trees and readying the land for the creation of an oak savanna.
“Volunteers at Holy Wisdom Monastery will be cutting down lots of trees in the next couple years. The weedy, invasive trees need to be removed to make way for native prairie and savanna plantings. These changes in the landscape are in accord with a new comprehensive land management plan that calls for the restoration of several different kinds of ecological communities that belong to this place. These include all of the communities that evolved with fire as an important ecological element—open prairie, savanna grasslands with a few widely spaced oak trees and oak woodlands,” explains Greg.
A dramatic and beautiful progression occurs on the land through the prairie burn season. The buff-colored litter of last years’ stems, the flash of fire leaving the ground black with soot, and the miraculous greening of the prairie in just a few days after the fire. Fire has always been an important element in prairies. Without it, as the early settlers found, the prairie turns into woods. Pictured above, top to bottom: April 15—Prairie maintenance burn in progress (photo by Mary Kay Baum); April 25—Prairie regrowth begins (staff photo); May 7—Prairie regrowth continues (staff photo).
Caring for the earth at Holy Wisdom preserves valuable open space along the north side of Lake Mendota and protects the health of the Madison area lakes by reducing runoff from agricultural land and urban development. “Our Benedictine values call us to do what we can to conserve precious natural resources on this earth,” summarizes Sister Mary David.
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; created a Friends of Wisdom Prairie to include bimonthly workdays; outings, dinner lectures and grounds tours offered to educate Friends; removed hedgerows as a first step to creating an oak savanna