The Patron Saints of Green Living

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Marie Mainguy /

New growth has a habit of springing to life at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin–and that’s fine with the Benedictine sisters who reside there. “If Benedict were living, would he insist that everything be done just the way it was done in 480? Hardly,” laughs Sister Joanne Kollasch, who has seen plenty of change since she joined the community almost 60 years ago.

In 1998 Holy Wisdom became the first Catholic monastery in the country to become ecumenical, extending full membership to single women of all Christian traditions–not just Roman Catholics. And in 2010 the sisters’ new monastery became one of the greenest buildings in the nation, earning Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council–an honor awarded to fewer than 5 percent of LEED-certified buildings.

From the “green” roofs to the 100 percent recyclable carpet, every nook and cloister of the building embodies the women’s commitment to “use what we need, but not more than that.” High-performance windows and solar tubes grace interior spaces with bright, natural light, while photovoltaic panels generate 15 percent of the building’s energy. Buried 300 feet beneath the parking lot–which is itself lit by solar-powered lights and paved with runoff-reducing cement–39 geothermal wells harness the earth’s natural temperatures to provide the monastery with efficient, year-round heating and cooling. And when the weather outside is pleasant, the central air-conditioning shuts off and residents automatically receive an email inviting them to open their windows.

The sisters made sure that the environment was considered throughout the process, not just in the end product. Instead of demolishing the old building and carting the mess to the dump, the sisters carefully deconstructed it so materials such as fiber-optic cables and organ pipes could be reused. “As we took the building down with care and reverence, it prepared us to put up a new building with the same care and reverence,” says Sister Joanne.

Like most Benedictine values, this spirit of reverence for all things can be traced back to the Rule of St. Benedict. Written in the sixth century, the rule outlines a pattern for monastic life emphasizing prayer, contemplation, stability, and balance. So when Benedict instructs that all things should be treated “as sacred vessels of the altar,” the sisters of Holy Wisdom took the advice seriously: Fully 99.75 percent of the old building was recycled or reused, diverting a whopping 8,628 tons of would-be waste from landfills.

Still more impressive was this: The project was completed under budget, coming in at $241 per square foot. That’s significantly less than the $366 per square foot cost averaged by other Platinum LEED-certified buildings. Sister Mary David Walgenbach, who entered the monastery in 1959, explains that the sisters were simply determined to build “a green monastery in a very red economy.”

Holy Wisdom Monastery was established in the 1950s, when a group of Benedictine nuns moved from Iowa to Wisconsin to open a Catholic high school for girls. Today, the community is home to three sisters and one associate member who live at the monastery and have promised to follow the Benedictine way of life, as well as a handful of women who are considering potential monastic vocations. Holy Wisdom is also home to a thriving oblate community, a group of more than 170 people from all traditions–including women and men, single and married, lay and ordained–who live outside the monastery but “find a practical spirituality” in the Benedictine tradition. As oblates, they commit to incorporating the Rule of Benedict into their daily lives and to coming to the monastery for times of prayer and spiritual formation.

On a typical day, you’ll find sisters, oblates, and community volunteers all working together in the apple orchard or praying the liturgy together in the oratory. “The place was so dynamic,” says Sister Lynne Smith, recalling one of her first days at the monastery, when more than 100 people joined the sisters to help reseed their prairies with native plants and clear paths in the woods.

Though this dynamic community has changed over the years, the sisters remain connected to the Benedictine tradition. But the Rule of St. Benedict contains no explicit “thou shalt be green” command. Dedication to ecological sustainability grows naturally out of the Benedictine vow of stability. “Because Benedictines put down deep roots,” explains Sister Lynne, “we have a commitment to bettering the larger community where we are. And for us, that includes the land.”

The sisters of Holy Wisdom certainly aren’t alone; from Rhode Island to New Mexico, monasteries of all denominations are caring for the earth as part of their monastic calling, adopting native plants, wind turbines, geothermal heating, solar panels, and even llamas in an effort to be better stewards of creation.

In the era of increasingly disastrous climate change brought on by our global fossil-fuel dependency, a couple of wind turbines and solar panels may appear to be insignificant. Yet Benedictine author Joan Chittister writes, “Monastic mindfulness recognizes that small actions are global in their scope and meaning. Benedictine spirituality requires all of us to go through life taking back one inch of the planet at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again.”

Since 1996–before Holy Wisdom had a Platinum LEED-certified building–the sisters have been quietly doing just that, partnering with volunteers and local organizations to restore the native prairie and glacial lakes on their land. To date, 95 acres have been rejuvenated. “Being so close to the land, it’s like the trees and the prairie and the garden are a part of the community,” says Sister Lynne. “We naturally want to care for it–it’s our home.”

Betsy Shirley is an editorial assistant at Sojourners, a Washington, D.C.-based magazine covering faith, politics, and culture. Excerpted from Sojourners (April 2011)

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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