Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay, WI

Pristine land is now protected through conservation agreement

The Woods near the Shrine of Our Lady of Champion. © Dan Larson image. Used with permission.

Caring for earth gives Sisters   and scientists a glimpse   into rare ecological finds

by Renae Bauer

In a blend of faith and environmental stewardship, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross are undertaking a historic step to preserve 32 acres of untouched woodlands bordering the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion.

On Jan. 5, 2024, the Sisters entered into a conservation easement agreement with Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust to protect in perpetuity the land’s natural and historical features. The Sisters still own the land but agree to certain land management practices to benefit generations to come. 

The property itself is a glimpse into what the area was like before much of the region’s land was cleared for farming or housing. While the woods likely burned during the 1871 Peshtigo Fire -- as evidenced by charred stumps discovered by researchers -- numerous studies by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and several departments at UW-Green Bay detail how the wooded area is home to coyotes, deer, turkeys, bobcat; numerous birds, insects, reptiles; and approximately 115 herbaceous species including a threatened plant and 22 species known to be sensitive to disturbance. 

Caring for God’s creation

This decision is not merely an act of conservation but a testament to the Sisters’ connection to their Franciscan values and to God.

In his Canticle of the Creatures, St. Francis of Assisi recognized God in all creation, said Community President Sister Rose Jochmann. “We (Sisters) talk a lot about sustainability and care for Earth. Creation, creatures and people are all part of St. Francis’ relationship and his way to God.”

First Vice President Sister Jane Riha added: “When St. Francis looked at even the smallest of creatures he saw the footprints of God. I think all that we do as Sisters flows from a deeper spirituality along with what the rest of the world is trying to do in terms of climate control.”

Nearly a century of enjoyment

The 32-acre property holds immense ecological and historical value as well as great sentimental value. Second Vice President Sister Mary Kabat recounted the ways in which the woods have been a part of the Sisters’ varied ministries during the 90 years they served at the Shrine. The woods have been:

  • A place to teach children about God and life
  • A place for young women attending the Sisters’ high school to relax 
  • A place of prayer for Sisters, locals, retreatants, and visitors

“While all those ministries were going on, the Shrine itself was a constant place of prayer for the people of the area, and so was our ministry to them,” she added.  In this act of conservation, the Sisters are not only preserving nature but also embodying the Franciscan values of respect and care for the Earth.

While Sister Rose emphasized the studies on the woods’ biodiversity, the value of its pristine state becomes evident. With few invasive plants and a diverse array of mushrooms, this habitat has become a unique ecological treasure. The decision to preserve it is not just about protecting land but safeguarding a rich tapestry of life created by God.

CONSERVED FOREVER:  Sister Rose Jochmann, Community President, receives a sign marking the land trust completion. From left are Julie Hawkins-Tyriver, Conservation Director; Sister Jane Riha; Community First Vice President; Sister Rose; and Sister Mary Kabat, Community Second Vice President. (Renae Bauer photo)

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