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LI nun takes 'leap of faith' to help save the environment

Sister Karen Burke was a college professor before

Sister Karen Burke was a college professor before becoming the coordinator of land initiatives for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood. Credit: Edward B. Colby

Deep in the Sisters of St. Joseph's religious order's campus in Brentwood, row after row of solar panels mark the landscape as you drive up.

Sister Karen Burke parks a golf cart by several tree stumps, where you can take in the giant project. There are 3,192 solar panels on the one-megawatt array spanning four acres, providing nearly two-thirds of the overall energy needs of the 212-acre property.

The array was built on what was the most environmentally degraded part of the campus, a staging area for landscape debris, Burke said. Beneath the panels workers planted a sustainable open meadow that needs mowing only once a year, in contrast to grass that requires weekly maintenance.

The solar project is one of the most visible ways the nuns' campus has changed since Burke became their coordinator of land initiatives in August 2016. She described her project as modeling best practices "that can be replicated throughout Long Island, because we all need to address these issues."

In 2015, Burke was a professor at Western Connecticut State University, teaching instructional leadership in education. She said she had "a tenured, full professor position at the university, teaching a doctoral program, traveling all over the world, doing all of these wonderful things."

Then in March of that year, everything changed for her.

That is when the sisters affirmed a sweeping Land Ethic Statement that refers to "our responsibility to balance our communal needs and the needs of Earth now and into the future," and commits to "preserve, protect, restore, and cherish the integrity, biodiversity, balance, and beauty of the land and all the species with whom we share it."

Burke knew she wanted something else and decided to take a chance.

"I walked away from a tenured full professor position in order to do what needed to be done here at this moment. It was a leap of faith for me," Burke said.

"I felt this is what the congregation needed for us to be doing," she said of her environmental work. It is where her heart and passion are, "but it's also part of my spirituality. Who I am as a sister of St. Joseph," said Burke, 59, who has been a nun in the order for 38 years.

Burke participated in Friday's Global Climate Strike in Manhattan with groups from four schools in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island that are run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. She called it energizing and said of the young people, "They give me so much hope for the future. Their commitment, their passion, it will keep me doing what I’m doing every day."

The Sisters of St. Joseph campus includes a three-acre former traditional lawn that has been turned into a meadow with plants and grasses that are native to Long Island. A rain garden with deep roots absorbs water that used to flood two parking lots. Burke is working on what will be the only commercial-sized constructed treatment wetland on Long Island, which would clean the campus' wastewater before it goes back into the ground and the aquifer.

The sisters worked with Suffolk County to set aside 27 acres as farmland, and they lease plots to a string of farms. The largest, Thera Farms, has a farmstand that accepted $17,000 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program vouchers during the summer of 2018, Burke said.

"That means $17,000 worth of local produce went to the community here that would not have," she said — a way of "servicing our neighbor."

Burke cited the support of her congregation’s leadership, including president Helen Kearney, their Earth Matters Committee and older nuns who have been pushing this along for many years.

"I'm able to do what I do today because of the sisters who have gone before me, that we had some figures who did so much," she said.

Kearney said their organic garden began over 25 years ago.

"That was the first effort to say how we are processing food and how we are using our resources is a concern," she said.

The recent changes have "really enlivened our campus, but it's also really enlivened our lives as women," Kearney said. A lot of the sisters are aging, she said. "This has given all of us a great purpose."

Burke's mentor, Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis, the co-founder of Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, talked about the primacy of the earth being sound, healthy and free of poison.

"She has really grappled with that, and tried to reorient the primacy of the land and the water and the region, and that's what you're seeing being manifested on that campus," MacGillis said.

The idea is to provide an example for Long Island.

"It's not just what we do on these 212 acres, but what are we doing that can model best practices for other people throughout the Long Island bioregion?" Burke said. "We're going to be addressing water quality, we need to look at soil quality, we need to look at food. It's a huge big issue, food, and where are we going to get our food from with climate change, and where are we going to get clean water?"

A note to readers: We are seeking more Long Islanders who have made significant changes to their lives because of climate concerns. If you are one — or have someone to suggest for a story — email edward.colby@newsday.com.

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