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Nuns Combine Spirituality, Education about Environment - 2002-05-29

Deep in the heart of West Virginia's coal country is a brand new ecology center. It's run by a group of Roman Catholic nuns and is the only such facility in West Virginia dedicated to educating the public about the state's environment.

Just past the mountain of coal, at the top of Marrowbone Ridge, beyond two cemeteries and at the end of a dozen kilometers of bumpy, unpaved dirt road, sits the brand new Web of Life Ecology Center.

Sister Jane Omlor works here with Sisters Barbara Westrick and Gretchen Schaffer. The Center is also home to two horses, two dogs and several cats, plus Sister Jane's pottery kiln and an environmentally friendly outhouse, which she says "uses no water. It is composting so when you do your little number in there you put some of this material in, which is a combination of like peat moss and sawdust. And, eventually it will compost everything and you can slide it out in about 3 or 4 months and use it as fertilizer. It's odorless, it's touchable, it's just fine," explained Sister Jane.

The nuns are constructing two more outhouses on the mountain where conserving water has a high priority. "We have a real bad water problem up here. We can't drink the water here at all; we carry in all of our drinking water. Everybody does up here. The wells have been ruined by the blasting from the coalmines, and so we just get our water from the rain," she said. "And we can use the deep well water but it's real rusty and sort of yucky. That's why we're very conservative on water and we want to go dry composting all over the place."

"Living lightly" on the earth is just part of the sisters' mission. Their spirituality sees people as interrelated with the whole of creation, so they are working to preserve Appalachia's ecological wonders as well as heal its wounds.

The sisters plan to use the Center for a July spiritual retreat for women. They'll conduct an art ecology camp for 9, 10 and 11-year-olds, in addition to a summer camp. Rather than teaching kids the names of every plant on the mountain, Sister Jane says, the nuns want to show them how to appreciate the environment and find joy in nature.

"We have a very serious littering problem in Mingo County, very serious. People come up here and throw beer cans and all kinds of stuff around. And we really want to educate the children to love the earth so much that they wouldn't even think of littering," said Sister Jane. "So we're really going to be stressing lifestyle changes in this program, not just so much learning and naming pieces of nature. We learn the process and then the celebration and the joy that comes with connection to the Earth."

This is not an entirely new mission for the sisters. They have been conducting outdoor science and ecology classes for the past five years on Marrowbone Ridge at the Big Laurel Learning Center. The facility, along with 200 hectares of the mountaintop, were purchased by local philanthropist Edwina Pepper 60 years ago. She established a school for the local children, and in the 1970s, invited the nuns to come live at the school and teach.

"She wanted to teach the children up here on the mountain, because many times they couldn't get off because of the very, very bad roads," said Sister Jane. "So a lot of them weren't getting an adequate education and she was very dedicated to education. So she put the word out that she wanted some teachers. And Sister Gretchen, a sister of St. Joseph from Wheeling [West Virginia,] and Kathy O'Hagan, a sister of Notre Dame D'Amour, responded 25 years ago, and they've been here ever since."

Road improvements eventually enabled Big Laurel's students to travel safely to the public school in the nearby town of Naugatuck, and the building was turned into a public nature center. The sisters were able to add the Ecology Center in April by following the Biblical principle, "ask, and you shall receive."

"There was this old abandoned building at the bottom of the mountain that we passed everyday," related Sister Jane. "And Sister Gretchen was going by one day and she thought, 'Oh, this is just going to rot.' So she asked the president of Marrowbone Coal Company if she could have it, and he said yes. So I said to Gretchen, I said 'Hey, why don't we build an ecology center' and she said, 'That's a great idea.' And then Bowling Green State University students came and in five days they literally gutted the building. ... If we thought about it we wouldn't have done it, it would have been just overwhelming."

Songbirds are a constant musical presence at the Ecology Center. A nearby pond teems with fish, and Sister Jane says there are bears nearby and an occasional deer. But amidst all the beauty, there is a constant reminder of the reality of life in the West Virginia mountains, one kilometer from a mountaintop mine. "And you can't hear it now because they're preparing to blast, but around 3 and 4 o'clock there's this huge blast and then the bulldozers and all that start. So you can see mountaintop removal from this center. We use the electric here that comes from coal. So we are certainly not against the coal industry, but we are against the method that they're using now [to get the coal]. So we really want to educate the children to alternatives, that West Virginia is a beautiful place, there're other things we can do when coal runs out. And hopefully they won't leave, but they'll continue working the land and loving the land and making this wonderful state thrive," said Sister Jane.

The Web of Life Ecology Center is supported solely by donations, grants from religious communities, and help from volunteers. The nuns hope it will become an important resource, not just for West Virginia, but for the entire Appalachian region.