Notching a 'Victory' for our common home

Thousands of years ago, the melting glaciers from Canada that carved out the Great Lakes also released a torrent of water that forged the Wabash River Valley in Indiana.Those waters cut through the region’s sandstone to create a bluff known as Victory Noll in Huntington, just over two miles from Our Sunday Visitor’s headquarters. From Canada, the glaciers also brought with them lands filled with granite and quartz that are not native to Indiana.

“Learning that, we realized the land was something that needed to be preserved,” said Sister Ginger Downey, the general secretary of the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, a small religious community of women dedicated to serving the poor in the name of Christ.

Sister Ginger told Our Sunday Visitor about her community’s decision to forever preserve the 107 acres of forest and prairie behind the order’s convent and motherhouse in Huntington. They unanimously agreed to sell the property to ACRES Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that preserves natural areas in northeast Indiana, southern Michigan and northwest Ohio. The closing took place June 6.

ACRES Land Trust will essentially “sit” on the property, ensuring that the woods and prairie space will not be sold to developers. The property’s topography — steep in some places — would not be easily developed anyway, but the community at least knows the land will always be a place where people can walk and sit on the bluff to look at nature and marvel at God’s creation.

Natural beauty

“It’s peaceful. People can come here and get their thoughts together. That’s something we need to nurture and to help people to develop, because we’re in such a noisy world,” Sister Ginger said.

Archbishop John Francis Noll, the founder of Our Sunday Visitor and bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana, from 1925-56, provided much of the land and the needed funding for the Victory Noll sisters in the early 1920s. He dedicated the community’s main building on July 4, 1925. Sister Ginger said the property was originally called the Our Sunday Visitor Farm.

“We then subsequently bought the land, probably about 200 acres at the time,” said Sister Ginger, adding that the Victory Noll sisters sold a portion of the property in the mid-1940s and then farmed the remaining land and leased it to tenant farms for many years.

Sister Ginger added that the community’s members, several of whom grew up as farmers’ daughters, over the years worked with many poor farmers who lived off the land. Many of the sisters worked closely with the United Farm Workers Movement and Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist.

Over the last 20 years, Sister Ginger said, the Victory Noll sisters have had a gradual awakening of the significance of open space, ecology, ecosystems and the interconnectedness of the earth and life in God’s creation. The sisters’ charism has long included caring for the earth, but the community developed a concern for open space especially as former farmlands in Huntington and the region were taken over for residential development.

When Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”), his 2015 encyclical on ecology, Sister Ginger described it in some ways as a final recognition of what the sisters had long taught and believed.

“It fit with what we had been working with for a number of years,” Sister Ginger said, “about the sacredness of the land, that it’s our home, and we have to be careful with it.”

The soul of conservation

By the mid to late 1990s, the Victory Noll sisters had begun looking at conserving the property. Around 2000, the sisters entered into the process of conserving the land through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. And two years ago, they began negotiations with ACRES Land Trust, which was founded in 1960 and functioned as an all-volunteer organization until the appointment of its first executive director in 1992.

Its current executive director, Jason Kissel, found the experience of working with the sisters powerful. He told OSV that, in working with landowners about why they want to preserve their land, it often takes some prompting to get them to articulate the core value behind their decision. But with the Victory Noll sisters, they simply handed him a piece of paper, a Land Ethic the community had written.

“It was beautiful. It was years of thought and prayer and just this intentional voice saying, ‘Here’s why we love our land, and here’s why it’s part of our ministry,’” Kissel said.

“The Land Ethic is about caring for the Earth, how the Earth is sacred,” Sister Ginger said. “We look at that idea, that the Earth is a gift from God and also a sacrament for us. We’ve been given this piece of earth to care for and to cherish and to use it as a way of being in communion with God and in being in communion with creation in a very unique way.”

The encounter with the Victory Noll sisters prompted Kissel and his staff to read Laudato Si’ and to continue engaging in dialogue with both the sisters and their other partners in conservation about the values they share.

A trending legacy

Today, the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters has 59 members, 44 of whom live at the motherhouse in Huntington. Their decision to enter into a land preservation compact is not unique among religious communities in the United States. Over the last few decades, several communities across the country have taken to steps to preserve their lands from development. As the religious orders’ members have aged and shrunk in numbers, the communities have been thinking about how their lands will be used by future generations.

Those communities have increasingly concluded the best legacy they can leave behind is the preservation of their land.

“Over the last 15 years, religious orders began to work with the land conservancy community to find ways to protect and conserve the land, so if the orders left their places, their buildings would find other purposes and new meanings, and the land would not be sold for quick capital gains,” said Sister Chris Loughlin, a Dominican Sister of Peace whose community sponsors the Crystal Spring Center in Plainville, Massachusetts.

“Historically, religious orders have maintained, in essence held in trust, these beautiful landscapes where their ministries were situated,” Sister Chris said. “Very often, the ministries they founded were located in open spaces, whether they be oceanfronts or farmlands. These were quiet places, places where the whole notion of the presence of God in nature was tangible.”

In 1991, Sister Chris’s community began using their land to start a community-sponsored agriculture program, which included an organic garden and the Crystal Spring Center, which is described on its website as an open space where “people gather to reflect, rethink, and reconstitute our human way of becoming a healing presence on this planet we call home.”

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In 2008, the land was permanently protected from development. Crystal Spring then partnered with the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition to form the Religious Lands Conservancy Project, an initiative that helps other religious communities work with the conservation community.

Among the orders that have decided to preserve their lands, often while turning down lucrative offers from developers, were the Sisters of Providence in Holyoke, Massachusetts. According to the Religious Lands Conservancy Project, the sisters rejected a large sum for their 25 acres along the Connecticut River, instead leasing the land for one dollar to a nonprofit that uses urban agriculture programs to train migrant and immigrant farmers. In 2009, the land was preserved permanently from development.

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.