A story carried in several newspapers including the Washington Post highlights a growing conservation trend. As their members age and their goals change, religious orders and organizations face hard choices about what to do with their lands and often turn to conservation.
The piece highlights the Religious Lands Conservancy — a Massachusetts organization that “has been instrumental in placing hundreds of acres owned by religious communities into conservation” — and Sister Chris Loughlin of the Dominican sisters of Plainville, Mass., an organizer of the conservancy.
With a faith-based mission to protect the Earth, Loughlin has approached congregations throughout the Northeast to broach the spiritual value of conservation.
It’s not just a feel-good spiritual mission. During the past 40 years, the number of Catholic nuns has plummeted 66 percent, and the number of Catholic brothers by 60 percent. The financial strain of dwindling membership has resulted in lucrative — and often attractive — offers to sell the orders’ land to developers.
In the mid-1970s, the sisters in Plainville confronted an increasingly familiar situation: Fewer students were enrolling in their parochial school, and shrinking numbers of sisters meant having to hire (and pay) lay teachers.
In a scenario faced by many Catholic orders, the cash-strapped sisters began to sell off pieces of property to help pay for the care of elderly members. In similar situations, land that was once eyed for a cemetery was split into subdivisions, and shuttered churches have been converted to condominiums.
The trend has actually been going on from some time. A few years ago I went looking for examples of TPL’s work with religious orders and came up with a dozen or so from across the East and Midwest, including projects to protect a baseball field in Chicago, a Presbyterian church camp in Minnesota, and the last surviving Shaker village.
Among religious groups that have chosen a conservation solution are the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey. Land around much of their convent, pictured above, is now public watershed, habitat, and recreation land.
As the Washington Post piece makes clear, while such transactions may in part be propelled by necessity, conservation by religious orders often is motivated by a deeply felt religious purpose.