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Ronkonkoma convent rebuilt as green building

Sister Barbara Regan, left, and Sister Jean Reardon

Sister Barbara Regan, left, and Sister Jean Reardon look at the geothermal heating and cooling systems at The Cenacle Sisters Retreat Center and Convent in Ronkonkoma. (July 16, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

Stewards of the environment, some Catholic sisters in Ronkonkoma have found a way to cultivate their faith through what they consider one of God's greatest creations -- the Earth.

They have turned the Ronkonkoma Cenacle Retreat Center and Convent at 310 Cenacle Rd. into a green building. And the project is garnering rewards.

In April, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an ecology-oriented building program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, recognized the retreat center with a gold certification.

"It's a part of our faith to believe that the Earth is God's creation. We should treat the gift with respect and reverence," said Sister Barbara Regan, who joined the convent 33 years ago.

In a three-year, $23-million renovation project using money from a property sale and a fundraising campaign, they tore down the old structure and reused most of the material to erect a new building on the same site.

The center enlisted the help of Vertegy, a St. Louis-based sustainable design and construction company, and Hoffman Llc. of Appleton, Wis., to construct a smaller, environmentally efficient building.

James Rennert, the retreat center's spokesman, said it's become increasingly common for congregations of Catholic sisters to convert convents into LEED-certified buildings.

"It's not uncommon for a place run by Catholic sisters across the country to be green and sustainable," said Sister Jean Reardon, who joined the convent 43 years ago.

"The sisters had always felt that if they were going to build the building, it would be done in an environmentally friendly way," Rennert said. "They believe in being good stewards of the Earth."

The Ronkonkoma project started in 2009, taking a year each to plan, deconstruct the old building and assemble the new one.

But it wasn't without hassle. Construction crews discovered asbestos, a buried fuel oil tank and abandoned wells in the building. "It was a surprise," Reardon said.

The convent is saving tens of thousands of dollars annually in utility and operating costs with the installation of a geothermal well used for the heating system, said Sam Statz, project manager for Hoffman.

Each of the 24 bedrooms inside the new 46,000-square-foot building was made with a gas and electric line in case the structure needs to convert to an assisted living residence.

Several parking spaces accommodate fuel-efficient vehicles and car pools. Bike racks are also available for those who do not want to drive on the retreat center's campus.

The sisters wanted to cause the least amount of disruption to nature and leave more resources for future generations, said Regan, supervisor of the development department.

"The project was stellar," said Thomas Taylor, Vertegy general manager. "A lot of the existing structure was preserved and used in other elements."

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