Next gen nuns generate their own electricity

06 September 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

When you spend hours in prayer kneeling on sustainably sourced pews and looking out a floor-to-ceiling view of the Garibaldi Highlands, it’s hard not to care about your environment.

The Dominican sisters at Queen of Peace Monastery have discovered that praying in a chapel with a stunning view of mountains and woods has made a genuine impact on their spirituality and how they go about their daily lives.

“Sitting and praying in front of the beauty in the chapel has extended and opened my prayer more and more,” said prioress Sister Claire Marie Rolf.

Since moving into Queen of Peace, the “tent of her heart” has opened to embrace not only family, friends, Catholics, and other Christians, but the planet as well.

“It’s all a part of God’s loving plan, that we be stewards, that we love creation the way he loves it,” said Sister Rolf. “It’s so full of beauty! You begin to cherish it and to hear its groaning, its suffering.”

This has led to changes big and small at the monastery 30 kilometres north of downtown Squamish. First, the sisters are installing a micro hydroelectric project in Pilchuck Creek, which runs through their property in cascading waterfalls and will easily provide enough clean energy to power their property.

Novices have told Sister Rolf they never expected to be rolling up their sleeves and mixing cement when they entered religious life. Yet, after the environmental studies (which began back in 2011) were completed and the Dominicans received a licence to build this spring, they have been hard at work hauling pipes, moving boulders, and otherwise following the instructions of on-site experts.

Sister Marie Thomas Lawrie, who made her first profession of vows in 2018, finds the whole process exciting.

“It’s really amazing to be out in the middle of this beautiful wilderness and to realize that rather than bringing in big machines and knocking down trees and having people tromping through the woods, wrecking it, we’re able to take almost a game trail into the woods and build this micro hydro project, where, if you’re standing on the road, you can’t even tell that it’s there,” she said.

“We’re able to do what we need to do to support our community while still respecting the amazing gift of creation that God gave us.”

She said doing the work by hand is a practice embedded in their religious tradition.

“It’s always been a monastic thing – hiring experts for the parts that need to be done by experts. But if we are able to do the work, we find a way to do the work … do it with our hands, and do it well.”

The chapel is seen at Queen of Peace Monastery, which has a very small environmental impact.

Consultant Peter Talbot, who has helped build various micro hydroelectric projects in the area over the years, said the Queen of Peace project is among those with the smallest environmental impact.

“We haven’t done any road building, construction, or blasting,” he said.

“If you were to drive up the hill, you wouldn’t see a thing. If you were to walk up the hill and look in a certain place, you might see a tank … or a couple of black pipes near a stream, which are noticeable, but not objectionable.”

In avoiding the use of heavy machinery, Talbot and the sisters have found creative ways to haul cement bags and 200-foot-long pipes with the help of ropes, zip lines, and pulleys. Talbot said he finds the whole process personally rewarding.

“It’s a huge blessing for me to be able to work for them. I believe in the same God they believe in, and to be able to work in a beautiful area that I’m familiar with, with some fabulous people, on a unique project, is really rewarding.”

When it’s all said and done, he said about 2,200 feet of pipe with an elevation drop of 750 feet will be installed on the property. The sisters have been approved to make 86 kilowatts, which will likely power all their needs, and possibly allow them to sell some electricity back to the B.C. Hydro grid.

Building a micro hydro electric project isn’t a cheap endeavour (the estimated cost of the project is currently $400,000) but leads to savings in the long run.

A $2.5-million project Talbot worked on for a camp many years ago paid for itself in five to six years. The sisters’ much smaller project will likely also pay for itself in a few years, he said.

He estimates the project will be complete in about a year.

The sisters have also found other ways to promote and support sustainable practices. They grow many of their own vegetables and have an agreement with a local organic farmer; he uses a portion of their land to grow his crops and they help themselves to produce without exchanging a dime.

Their chapel and other rooms are furnished with wooden shelves, tables, and pews made from the trees that were cut down during the construction of the monastery.

And when purchasing groceries, the sisters avoid single-use plastics.
In a small gift shop, the sisters sell various handmade items to help support themselves. Those gifts include cards made of recycled paper, and pottery created out of local materials.

Potter Sister Mary Magdalen Coughlin tries to use only local ingredients in their works and went so far as scooping up granite dust during on-site construction for use in her art.

For Sister Lawrie, this way of life is a hopeful response to a planet that many deem doomed.

“In school or summer camps, there were always talks about ecology, climate change, and the effects that unbridled human industry can and has had on the environment. I got sort of sick of it at one point. It was like: ‘the planet is doomed, it’s our fault, and don’t forget to recycle your bottles,’ which isn’t exactly a message of hope,” she said.

“It’s been a beautiful discovery for me, first in prayer, then in study, to find a language of hope for talking about environmentalism and care of creation, which for me begins by recognizing that, while it’s not one of the seven sacraments, it is a visible sign of an invisible reality,” she said.

“Creation, and that includes us, is really a sign of the glory and beauty and presence of God.”

And that – moreso than the trendy eco-friendly movements of B.C.’s outdoor community – is the catalyst behind their hydroelectric project and other eco-friendly efforts.

Sister Rolf puts it this way: “We’re building something beautiful for God. It’s for his kingdom, for the environment, and for clean energy to help sustain our community. It just makes sense.”