By Lisa Scott
On 212 acres in western Suffolk, a small group of women continue to discern how to live authentically so their actions remain consistent with their mission. These are the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ), who in their second century in Brentwood embrace and model sustainable practices bringing them ”into deeper union with the Holy One and the whole community of life.”
The League of Women Voters recently met with them and toured their campus, and came away inspired and convinced that the Sisters live in a way that seeks “union with God and with the sacred community of life that includes all of creation — air, soil, plants and animals.”
In 1903, the Sisters, relocated from Flushing, NY to Brentwood on land that was originally inhabited by the Secatogue tribe, and established a school on fertile land referred to as “St. Joseph in the Pines.” Old stands of pitch pines, white pines and oak are preserved to this day. Over the years, a boarding school, convent, chapel and nursing home were built while the surrounding area was developed and densely populated.
A little more than thirty years ago, the Sisters formed an Earth Matters committee to better respond to the cries of the poor, the cries of Earth. Their mission of unity called for a response to heal a wounded world and dispel the illusion of separation. Through contemplation and study they sought to live with a deeper sense that they are a part of creation and not apart from it.
Aware of the responsibility we all have for the health of Earth and in particular for the Long Island Bioregion the Sisters worked with the Peconic Land Trust and Suffolk County to preserve parcels of the Brentwood campus and return it to agricultural production — 28 acres of land are leased to several farmers, enabling mowed grass lawn to be restored to farming fields.
The farmers are only permitted to use organic practices, and there is a farm stand for purchase of produce raised on the campus. SNAP coupons are accepted to encourage access to nutritious options raised locally. Island Harvest Food Bank has worked the land and hopes to harvest 10,000 lbs. of produce in 2022 while the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, an all-volunteer cooperative effort of over 30 non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, nursery professionals, and citizens works to protect the genetic integrity and heritage of Long Island native plant populations and thus biodiversity from a landscape to genetic level in a greenhouse on the Brentwood grounds. The Sisters also raise chickens for eggs and harvest honey from their beehives, and have established a community sharing table on the grounds.
Waste is a natural aspect of life, so there is a commitment to composting organic materials and thus creating quality soil for agricultural use. Two alternative waste treatment systems have been built: one is a constructed wetland system to reduce nitrogen affecting our bays and waterways, the other designed for the needs of the nursing home to deal with medical waste in an innovative way.
With a strong commitment to clean energy, a 1 megawatt ground mounted solar array with 3192 solar panels was constructed on a 4 acre plot, which provides 63% of the energy used on campus. The ground cover surrounding the solar panels is also environmentally friendly with native meadows and plants attracting bees, butterflies and pollinators, avoiding the degraded land all too common in a solar field.
Native meadows inviting to pollinator insects and birds were planted and bloom throughout most of the summer. Work has been done to create rain gardens near roads and parking areas, to direct water back into the soil where native plants with their extensive long root systems assist with flood control and purify the water before filtering down into the aquifers.
The Sisters also engage in social justice issues and other community needs consistent with the practices of their founders. Their assessment of today is of a world that is bruised and broken from a lack of remembering who we are, where we come from and to whom we belong. We have forgotten that we are a part of one sacred community that began with a small yet potent spark 13.8 billion years ago that continues to connect and evolve our relationships. If healing is to happen for people it needs to happen for the planet as well. For more information, visit www.brentwoodcsj.org
Lisa Scott is president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit https://my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county or call 631-862-6860.