A convent of Roman Catholic sisters living near Bardstown, Kentucky have dedicated their lives to charity for the last 200 years. During the Civil War, they nursed wounded soldiers. During the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, they opened the first nursing home in Kentucky for AIDS patients.
Three years ago the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth made a new commitment: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2037 at their ministries in Kentucky and Belize.
Their goal is in line with recommendations from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says mankind must act now to reduce and offset carbon emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The IPCC report finds that reaching net-zero emissions by 2040 would significantly limit warming temperatures. So why did the sisters choose 2037?
“It’s a little more aggressive because the sisters realize not everyone is able to do that. So part of what they are doing is trying to make up for what other people are not able to do,” said Carolyn Cromer, sustainability director.
The sisters live on a sprawling 370-acre property in Nazareth, Kentucky. Founded by Catherine Spalding — you know, of Spalding University — and Bishop John Baptist David in 1812, the diocese focused on providing religious education to Catholic families.
When the convent first opened, the sisters used to travel by train. Now they have three charging stations for electric vehicles. Dormitories that once served a college on the campus have become housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.
Their mission, too, has evolved, said Sister Susan Gatz.
Old-school Catholic doctrine said God gave people the earth, and that humans have “dominion” over it. These days the sisters focus on how everything on earth is interconnected. The sisters see themselves as stewards of God’s creation, and sustainability is part of that mission, Gatz said.
“As we continue to degrade the air, the water, the land, we ourselves are going to suffer because we are a part of this. We are not over it. So I think shifting that thinking is a huge task for humanity right now,” she said.
Across the property, the sisters have begun planting native trees to increase shade and offset the urban heat island effect. They’ve planted pollinator plant species and released Monarch butterflies, whose populations are declining. They’re cutting back on mowing to increase habitat for Kentucky critters, and all the lawn care that remains is done with electric equipment.
On the roof of one building, just across from the spires of the church, the sisters have installed about 140 solar panels — one of two installations on the property.
This year the sisters are calculating ways to offset their carbon footprint for air travel. And by the year 2047, they plan for all of their ministries to be carbon free, in the U.S., Belize, India, Nepal and Botswana, Africa.
“For us it’s a spiritual reality because of our relationship with the earth, because of the holiness of creation, because of our relationship to the creator,” Gatz said.
The sisters manage a community garden and have begun incorporating the produce into their meals: cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and squash, among others. They even compost, and have their own rainwater collection system.
Recently, the sisters adopted “Meatless Mondays” to lessen their carbon footprint from resource-intensive agriculture. Not all the changes are easy, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle.
Sister Evelyn Hurley is going to be 105 years old in March. She’s willing to put up with Meatless Mondays, but she didn’t seem all that thrilled about it.
“I mean I know it’s very important to take care of the earth. I know that. I’m fully aware of that,” Hurley said. “But of course I’m so much older too. I think all these young people have all these other ideas, but well, I’ll go along with anything that’s decided.”
Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated Carolyn Cromer’s first name.