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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2006 Issue

Blue Nuns Go Green
Landscape architects help a Michigan convent bring its goal of sustainability to life.

By Linda McIntyre

Blue Nuns Go Green Viridian Landscape Studio

Religious faith and environmentalism don’t always walk hand in hand. Historically, much of Western theology has been more concerned with having dominion over the earth than with stewardship, and many religious groups still focus their prayers on the afterlife. Now, however, as many churches and other religious groups are putting “ecojustice” at the top of their social agendas, they are influencing the political debate on climate change and other environmental issues.

Witness, for example, the formation in the 1990s of the interdenominational National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Or, more recently, the statement released in February 2006 by a group of more than 85 evangelical leaders, including best-selling author Rick Warren and Salvation Army national commander Todd Bassett, calling on Congress to require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Some religious groups are going even further, backing up their beliefs with bricks and mortar—and meadows and wetlands—that are showing the rest of us the true potential of sustainable design. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), an order of Catholic nuns in Monroe, Michigan, have brought to life the ecological imperative of their mission with a green renovation of the Motherhouse, the order’s historic “headquarters,” and a new ecological approach to the landscape around it.

The IHM community, known locally as the “blue nuns” for the dark wool habits they used to wear, was founded in Monroe in 1845 as a ministry of education. The Motherhouse, an enormous brick structure housing a chapel, administrative offices, meeting rooms, and residential facilities for older and infirm IHMs, was built in 1932 on a 280-acre campus on the River Raisin. Much of this acreage is forestland or leased to farmers, and until the renovation the land immediately surrounding the Motherhouse was neatly mowed lawn with mature trees scattered about, and the foundation of the building was surrounded by small conifers that the sisters had used as Christmas trees. Today, however, the Motherhouse sits proudly on a landscape of wildflower meadows, vegetated swales, and a wetland built to treat graywater.

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