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Sisters of St. Joseph put faith in preserving the environment

During the past few years, these nuns have dedicated themselves to land preservation, organic farming and energy conservation on their Brentwood campus.

From left, Sister Mary Lou Buser, Sister Karen

From left, Sister Mary Lou Buser, Sister Karen Burke, Sister Helen Kearney and Sister Clara Santoro of the Sisters of St. Joseph feed chickens at their organic garden in Brentwood on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

For the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood, good stewardship of the environment is an integral part of their Catholic faith.

Through land conservation efforts, an organic agricultural initiative, eco-friendly landscaping and the recent addition of solar panels on a southeastern plot on their Brentwood property, the sisters have made it their mission to examine the consequences any of their decisions may have on the environment.

“It’s a new way of looking at our God, seeing God in all things,” said Sister Karen Burke, the organization’s land initiative coordinator. “It’s changed our relationship with earth and really helped us to see all of these decisions that we make with the earth and the environment do have a significant impact on our neighbors.”

The nuns have put that conviction into action since 2015 when they drafted and signed a land ethics statement outlining their commitment to preserving the environment.

“All of this is based . . . on deep contemplation among the sisters,” Burke said. “We did take a good amount of time to pray about it, but also to educate ourselves.”

That education started with a focus on water quality and help from groups like The Peconic Land Trust.

Burke said the sisters started making changes once they better understood the importance of clean groundwater and protecting aquifers on Long Island. Since then, they’ve sought to put easements on portions of the 212-acre campus to ensure that the land remains undeveloped or used for agricultural purposes.

Two sites, totaling 27 acres, are awaiting a final change to the deed for the land to be officially designated only for agricultural use. The sisters are also seeking a green easement to guarantee an additional 35 acres will remain undeveloped, wooded land in perpetuity.

“As we began to realize how precious and sparse this type of land is in western Suffolk, we realized we had a responsibility to meet the need to preserve it,” said Sister Helen Kearney, president of the institution. “We wanted to make the decision moving forward that all of our decisions would be sustainable.”

The sisters have also installed a rain garden — natural landscaping that captures and cleans storm water runoff — on campus, with plans to add a second to the campus.

The sisters also had a new solar panel system installed. Operational this month, the 5-acre field is expected to offset 63 percent of the electricity needs on the St. Joseph campus.

It’s all part of an overarching focus that Burke said is line with leadership at the top of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis issued a statement on the environment in 2015 — just months after the Sisters of St. Joseph signed their own commitment — that urged the whole world to work together for the benefit of the planet.

“That leadership from the Vatican has been critically instrumental and spirituality enriching for us,” Burke said, of the pope’s statement. “This is where we recognize God. This is where our faith has brought us to at this moment.”

Sisters of St. Joseph commit to the environment: By the numbers

  • 62 acres to be preserved as farmland or untouched forest
  • 12,000 square feet of rain gardens on campus
  • 63 percent of electricity used on campus will now be solar powered

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