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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 7, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
 
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Threats to traditional family threaten peace, pope says in message
Dominican nun finds calling
as environmentalist
 
Dominican Sister Barbara Hagel, former principal of Oakland’s St. Elizabeth Elementary School, harvests some of the potatoes she grew in her garden at her community’s motherhouse in Fremont.
DOMINIQUE GHEKIERE-MINTZ PHOTO


Take it from Sister Barbara Hagel. All those cartoons showing delectable little plants being slurped back into the ground by hungry gophers are true. Sister Hagel has personally witnessed this particular aspect of the food chain in action.

In fact, the Mission San Jose Dominican recently spent several days digging numerous 18 inch holes and then lining them with chicken wire to discourage the critters from pursuing future repasts.

Last spring, unbeknownst to Sister Hagel, the planned site of the Fremont motherhouse’s organic garden turned out to be in the middle of a thriving community of gophers. So Sister Hagel, director of her community’s new Care of the Earth project, and her volunteers are learning to coexist with their bewhiskered neighbors without harming them in any way.

This is consistent with the community’s commitment “to grow in oneness with and our responsibility for all creation” reached in 2005 during their General Chapter.

As a starting point, they had examined the U.S. Catholic bishops’1991 pastoral statement on “Renewing the Earth.” The document holds a “God centered and sacramental view of the universe as a key dimension of ecological responsibility for Catholics.”

As a follow-up, they invited Dominican Sister Sharon Zayac, author of “Earth Spirituality: In the Catholic and Dominican Traditions” to speak to them. Sister Zayac challenged them to respond to the signs of the times, just as medieval Dominicans St. Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart had done in recognizing the interconnectivity of everything on earth.

See related story: Women religious are ‘going green’ in record numbers  
 
In her book, Sister Zayac notes that Aquinas speaks of the importance of extending moral considerations to all living things.

Eckhart writes rhapsodically that “every creature is full of God, a word of God, a book about God . . . creation is a temple of God, a home for God, and an overflow of the goodness and beauty that God is.”

The Sisters listened deeply to Aquinas, Eckhart, the Bishops’ words, and to Sister Zayac’s teachings. Then they began to move forward, letting their spiritual ancestors lead the way.
A volunteer pours olives into a bin during the Mission San Jose Dominicans annual olive harvesting at their Fremont motherhouse, Dec. 8. The harvesting began with a blessing of the olive trees. The olives will be pressed into olive oil and sold by the Sisters.
DOMINIQUE GHEKIERE-MINTZ PHOTO

Almost three years later, their earth care journey, led by Sister Hagel, is bearing fruit. They’ve added 20 fruit trees to the orchard which has been on the motherhouse grounds for many years. The irrigation system has been updated.

This past summer, despite the gophers, their organic garden yielded so many tomatoes and raspberries that there were plenty to share with the Holy Family Sisters’ motherhouse across the street. This fall, they’ve had a bumper crop of persimmons, too.

Recently, the St. Joseph Parish Men’s Club in Fremont built the Sisters a new greenhouse. Sister Hagel is delighted with their gift, since she grows everything in the garden from seedlings.

Besides greening the Fremont campus through its garden, the Sisters are embarking upon an impressive number of other ecological ventures.

Under the direction of Sister Karen Elizabeth Zabitt, motherhouse administrator, and Michael King, food service director, the Sisters have begun a large recycling program that includes not only bottles, cans, cardboard and mixed paper, but also food waste collection for composting, biodegradable food service ware when hosting large events, and trash reduction.

They don’t put fat, oil and grease down their kitchen’s disposal system, donating the oil to bio-diesel manufacturers instead. They are using compact fluorescent bulbs and energy-saving T8 tubes throughout the motherhouse facilities.

They collect old batteries for recycling. They drink Fair Trade coffee, grown in Central America by farmers who receive living wages.

Their efforts have already attracted kudos. In November 2007, the City of Fremont recognized the Sisters for their “dedication to the environment by implementing extensive recycling programs, and for being an environmentally-conscious institution.”

The Sisters’ new ministry has extended south to Marywood, their 178-acre retreat site in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They’ve owned the site since 1935 and for many years used it as a summer camp for kids living at their St. Mary of the Palms orphanage.

Marywood is blessed with a cathedral of old growth redwood trees, as well as a grove of magenta-colored manzanitas. Last spring the Sisters hosted a “Scotch Broom Pull’ to get rid of invasive non-native plants growing in those areas. Their work quickly became a spiritual experience, recalls Sister Barbara Hagel, in the community’s recent newsletter.

“Coming back to the land is coming home,” she said.

“There is such a sense of peace and belonging when I walk through the forest at Marywood. Often, before entering a forest or a meadow, I will stop and just become mindful that I am entering the home of many other creatures and I ask permission to briefly share their space.”

Thanks to some generous donations, the community is now upgrading the three retreat houses at Marywood with energy efficient windows. Converting to solar power is also in their plans.

The Sisters couldn’t have chosen a more qualified ecological champion to make it all happen than Sister Hagel. While serving as principal of St. Elizabeth School in Oakland, she was a passionate supporter of the Garden of Learning, one of the first school gardens in the Oakland Diocese to incorporate hands-on earth care for kindergarten through eighth grade. Besides learning about seed saving, growing plants and cooking their harvests, the kids have a salad bar every Wednesday for lunch.

In 2006, to better prepare for her new role as environmental advocate, Sister Hagel spent 11 weeks at Genesis Farm, a world-renowned school of sustainable agriculture and earth care in New Jersey headed by Caldwell Dominican Sister Miriam MacGillis. She has also studied permaculture and ecological design at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in the hills surrounding California’s Russian River.

But nurturing earth and humanity at the physical level are only part of Sister Hagel’s work. Add adult education to her busy schedule. She teaches eco-spirituality at Queen of the Holy Rosary Learning center on the Fremont motherhouse campus.

A few weeks ago, she offered a course entitled “Jesus and the New Story,” featuring the works of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist, and Brian Swimme, a Catholic mathematical cosmologist, coupled with the words and teachings of Jesus.

The class linked the Christian tradition with what science has learned in the past 30 years about the interconnectedness of everything in the universe, explained Sister Hagel.

“Jesus was amazingly eco-spiritual,” she said. “All of his story images are connected to the earth. He saw humanity as being one with everything.”

Getting this message out to parishes is Sister Hagel’s next project. She envisions a class in eco-spirituality especially for catechists.


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