Fifteen years ago it was a dream. A few sisters imagined establishing a center for environmental education. Today, the Racine Dominicans’ Eco-Justice Center is a thriving reality. Alpacas graze tall hay beneath a 140-foot wind turbine. Chickens and ducks wander between the solar panel-clad wooden buildings.
Green, metaphorically and physically, the center is a model of environmentally conscious living and care for creation. The mission of the sisters and staff of the center is to “model sustainable, simple living while reverencing the land and all who have lived in this place before them.”
The center started with the thought that the order could push into new territory. “The Dominican sisters had already established outreach in areas of social justice and education, while little had been done in the area of environmental justice,“ director Sr. Janet Weyker explained. “We spent two years talking about it, one year learning about it, and one year looking for the right venue.”
The sisters were certain that their environmental education would have to take place outdoors – learning about the protection of Earth is most effective through hands-on experience rather than through books in a classroom. So when Dennis and Marian Kornwolf offered to sell the order a 15-acre lot in Racine with forest, field, and wetland in 2004, Sr. Janet and the other five founding women knew that they had found their space.
For More information
Learn more about the Racine Dominicans’ Eco-Justice Center, located at 7133 Michna Road in Racine, on their website at racinedominicans.org/eco-j.cfm or by calling (262) 681-8257.
The Racine Dominicans as a whole were split on whether the idea was good, but Sr. Janet said that care for the planet like this spans much wider than the local Dominican order.
“The universe wants this,” she said.
The building was purchased on the feast day of another steward of the Earth, St. Francis, in 2004. The six women, five of them Dominican sisters and one an associate working with them, did not have extensive experience with this kind of lifestyle. Sr. Janet and Sr. Rose Marie Dischler, another resident of the center, grew up on farms, which aided them with the care for the plants and animals, but they had to learn many of the other skills as they presented themselves. Through classes in agriculture and art, as well as the study of similar programs, they were able to make their dream become a reality.
Wider than themselves
“Originally this project was meant to be by and for the six founding women,” Sr. Janet said. “This was their way of living in a sustainable manner, and once they completed the project, they would pay the benefits forward through their educational programs. All of the work would be done by those that lived there.”
But the sisters soon came to understand that they would need support from outside the order.
“We realized we couldn’t do this by ourselves,” Sr. Janet said. “We needed the help of people invested in the center.”
Olympia Brown Unitarian Church in Racine was among the first groups to provide assistance in establishing the Eco-Justice Center. As part of its process of becoming a Green Sanctuary Church, Olympia Brown periodically donated their offertory collection to the center, and assisted in construction and maintenance in 2005.
This assistance has continued for the past decade. Volunteers come from companies, churches, schools, and include young people doing court-ordered community service. Fifteen boys have completed Eagle Scout projects for the center’s benefit. Each year, volunteers contribute more than 6,000 hours of service.
“As an independent nonprofit, we also rely on community support to stay financially stable,” Sr. Janet added. “We receive about $8,000 a year in envelope donations from contributors, and a few of the large projects were sponsored by large donations from friends of the facility. We also charge a small amount for school trips, tours, camps, and programming, as well as applying for grants for projects like the wind turbine.”
Their largest fundraiser is a festival on the third Sunday of September, where they sell food and crafts, and offer numerous activities for visitors.
Thanks to community support, the Dominicans have been able to amass an impressive selection of resources and sustainable features. The original house was expanded so as to be the residence for all six women. Other buildings include an educational house, a hermitage open as a retreat center to any individual or couple interested, a tree house, and a bee house for honey.
“All of the buildings were built green,” Sr. Janet said. “We use recycled materials and as little energy as possible.”
They have plans to add a multipurpose building for more demonstrations and, possibly, seven more acres in the upcoming years as well.
The center also has 55 solar panels atop an 1870 granary for electricity, four panels on the house for hot water, geothermal heating and cooling, and a 10 kilowatt wind turbine, helping make them 85 percent independent of fossil fuels.
“We grow fruits and vegetables in our gardens and give the excess to a local food pantry. We also get eggs from the chickens and fiber for crafting from the alpacas. We use manure from many of the animals for composting and fertilizer,” Sr. Janet said.
Other animals include goats, ducks, geese, guineafowl, two cats, rabbits, bees, and a dog.
“A fourth-grade boy told me that he liked that we have alpacas because they’re like therapy animals. You feel good when you look at them, ” Sr. Janet said.
Originally, the center offered only one summer camp for 6- to 10-year-olds, but they have expanded every year and now offer camps and 27 programs for many ages, including a free summer camp for inner-city children. At these camps, the sisters teach everything from gardening to candle making to pizza making.
“The goal is to make the children more aware of where their food and other goods come from, and to gain a new appreciation for the Earth,” Sr. Janet said. “In this modern world, a separation occurs between food and its origin. The Eco-Justice Center seeks to bridge that gap.”
Three ‘C’s and eight ‘R’s
The center’s mission is to educate from within the context of creativity, contemplation, cultivation and community. Creativity is visible through the alpacas and the crafts that are made with their fiber.
Sr. Janet was an art education major, and when people ask if she regrets not getting the chance to use what she learned, she says that she uses art every day.
“I have a new canvas,” she said.
The other three ‘C’s are equally visible. Contemplation can be seen in their hermitage and meditative walking labyrinth. Cultivation happens in their garden, vineyard, orchard and greenhouse. Community is behind everything that they do.
The eight ‘R’s are core to the environmental education the sisters provide for the children. “You’ve heard of the first three: reduce, reuse, recycle,” Sr. Janet said. “We have added five more – reverence, respect, responsibility, rethink, and repair – to give people a more complete understanding of how to care for the environment.”
When these values are practiced completely, the sisters say, true environmental justice results.
These values leave an impression on the visitors of the Eco-Justice Center, which is apparent in the number of people who return to the center after their first experience. Sr. Janet is touched whenever this occurs.
“There was a student who volunteered at the center to make up a quarter credit, only to return five years later as an adult, looking to help some more. Another young woman came two years in a row through an interim program at Prairie School, returned during college and decided to change her major to horticulture,” she said.
Every year some children come to the center to fulfill court-ordered community service obligations, and Sr. Janet tells them, “You don’t have to get in trouble to come back.” And without fail, some do.
Kate Kirbie studied biology with a concentration in environmental science at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She considered joining the Peace Corps, but she wanted to find something that matched her interest in the environment.
She talked to a group of Dominicans after graduating in 2012 and decided to volunteer at the Eco-Justice Center for a year. After her time was up, she liked it enough and the sisters needed her skills so much that they offered her a paid position at the center.
“I have a different life than most people my age,” Kate said, “but I prefer it. I learn so much from the sisters. They have so much more life experience than my peers. I’ve probably learned more at the center than I ever could have in a classroom environment.”
Sr. Janet joked that it’s grad school with grandmas. The spiritual aspect, too, is very important to Kate.
“Communities in general,” she said, “especially if spiritual communities, have the benefits of being supportive, of being able to work things out together.”
Some have asked Sr. Janet why they have not built a chapel at the center. She simply responds that God is in the Earth and the care for it, and no extra building is necessary.
“This whole place is sacred,” she said. “People tend to think of church life and daily life as being two distinct entities, when really they should be one and the same.”
Connections to the pope’s encyclical
Sr. Janet said that everyone conscious of environmental living was extremely excited about the release of the Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,” an indictment of Earth’s poor condition and a call for immediate action.
She had noticed that Catholics do not preach about environmental justice very much, especially compared to some other religious organizations. She hoped that the release of this document could change that, making the entire Catholic community more aware of the environment.
Sr. Janet hoped that the encyclical would arouse people’s senses of wonder and awe and “tickle – no, impact – what they are doing to apply their faith to their lives.”
She added that social justice and environmental justice are so intertwined, in issues here and abroad, and many people are finally being forced to realize that.
“It used to be that money could insulate the rich,” she said, noting even the rich are being affected by environmental issues. “No money can stop the problems now. Only people’s actions can do that.”
As advice to people seeking to make changes in their lives, Sr. Janet said to look at the eight ‘R’s. Even choosing one is useful. The small changes that stem from being more conscious – using LED lights, buying reusable shopping bags, reducing water consumption – can make a big difference. Like a woodpecker, Sr. Janet said, you are going to dent away at the problem.