When the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, updated their mission statement in 1995, they decided at the last minute to add six words to the end: “and to care for the Earth.”
An afterthought at the time, those six words now have become integral to everything the international order does.
“We really take that seriously,” said Sr. Susan Gatz, former president of the community. “We began asking ourselves on every level: How are we helping or hurting the Earth?”
As the years passed and asking that question became part of everyday life, the sisters realized they often didn’t know the answer. Or when they thought they knew the answer, they feared it might be incomplete or based on assumptions rather than evidence: Electric vehicles seem like a good alternative, but might not be if your electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.
“If you want to help the Earth instead of hurt it, the question becomes, ‘So how do we do it?’ ” Gatz said. “We wanted to look at everything — water, electricity, recycling.”
Sisters have been working to protect the environment and teaching others to protect it for decades. In recent years, many communities have worked to permanently protect their own land holdings from development.
But in 2014, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth realized they wanted to take their efforts further. They also knew they would eventually need to make decisions about the land and buildings they own: the motherhouse campus that was once home to hundreds of sisters, Nazareth College and Academy, the infirmary, the novitiate and a large working farm. What should the land and buildings be in the future, and, more importantly, how could they be used to help care for the Earth?
The sisters began talking to other organizations that had sustainability directors and worked out a job description, which they also sought input on from experts. When they were ready to search for job candidates, the search committee even included someone from Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, a 15,000-acre preserve nearby focused on the bond between people and nature.
Carolyn Cromer was named director of the sisters’ Office of Ecological Sustainability in 2017. She wasted no time in getting to work: Within a few months, she had set a goal for the congregation’s Western Province (the United States and Belize) to become greenhouse-emissions free by 2037 and the Eastern Province (India, Nepal and Botswana) to do the same by 2047.
“That goal is in no way extreme,” Cromer said. “But we wanted to set that goal, because if not us, then who?”
There are also opportunities in areas that might be surprising. The congregation’s Eastern Province has an extra 10 years to meet its goal of zero greenhouse emissions, but it may meet its goal before the Western Province. Where the sisters minister in India, Nepal and Botswana, there is often little or no infrastructure, so it is not only easier to start out using sustainable energy such as solar power than it is to convert, but sometimes, the sustainable method is the only one available, Cromer said — you can’t connect to the grid if there is no grid to connect to.
Recently, Cromer recruited some sisters to examine every piece of waste the campus generated in one day so sisters and staffers could understand the amount of waste created and to see what is being treated as waste that might be able to be reused or recycled instead.
Cromer has also gotten the community to examine its use of fossil fuel-burning vehicles.
“The care committee took a good, long look at the number of miles we drive,” Cromer said. “The emissions are significant. So we’re purchasing one or two electric vehicles this year.”
And because burning fossil fuels generates almost two-thirds of the electricity in the United States, negating much of the environmental benefit of electric cars, the community hopes to eventually have a solar-powered charging station for the new electric vehicles.
Having Cromer on staff has turned even simple projects into researched changes. When some vinyl flooring needed to be replaced in one of the buildings, the sisters planned to install carpet until Cromer pointed out that carpet can emit chemicals into the air for years. Instead, the floor was painted with low-emission paint.
“Nazareth isn’t its own little thing,” she said. “We sit in a watershed and in a region, and all of it is interconnected. So we can’t be planning in isolation.”