You wouldn’t necessarily know they were nuns.
After all, the women who pray at a vacant former Phillips 66 lot in Bridgeton have been forced recently to bundle up in heavy coats that obscure any religious paraphernalia.
But twice a month for more than a year, the women religious have gathered at the empty lot holding signs that carry slogans such as “Caution Ahead: 47,000 tons of radionuclide waste.”
The prayer vigils, or what some might refer to as protests, are meant to call attention to the West Lake Landfill and the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, where a smoldering underground fire has heightened citizens’ concerns about the waste dumps.
Many in the community worry that the underground fire is heading toward the West Lake Landfill, where radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production was illegally dumped 40 years ago.
They fear the radioactive material could contaminate drinking water or become airborne, potentially causing deleterious health effects. Landfill owner Republic Services has said there is little danger to the public, even if the fire reached the radioactive waste.
The landfills are just part of the environmental focus of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. In the last two years, the nuns have invested $6.1 million in companies on the cutting edge of sustainability. They plan to invest an additional $4 million. The religious sisters have also divested from investments in businesses that rely on fossil fuels, such as Exxon Mobil, Ameren Corp. and Valero Energy.
Their effort is no small feat for a community of nuns that, like other Roman Catholic organizations, has aged and shrunk over the years. In the 1960s, about 500 nuns belonged to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, which is based here in St. Louis. Today, there are about 80 left nationwide.
“The Franciscan impulse is toward valuing the beauty of creation,” said Sister Jeanne Derer, 72, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary for 54 years and who has been at the forefront of their environmental efforts. Creation, Derer said, is “the manifestation in some way of the divine.”
“I don’t have children, but I think about those who do,” Derer continued. “If you have a sense of what’s happening around us, how concerned people must be not just for this generation but for their children and their grandchildren.”
‘PROTECTING ALL CREATION’
The Franciscan Sisters of Mary aren’t alone in their environmental focus. The Roman Catholic Church has for years attempted to influence the debate on global climate change.
In 2001, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a “plea for dialogue,” noting that they made “no independent judgment on the plausibility of ‘global warming.’ Rather, we accept the consensus findings of so many scientists.”
“Our religious tradition has always urged restraint and moderation in the use of material goods, so we must not allow our desire to possess more material things to overtake our concern for the basic needs of people and the environment.”
This month, world leaders settled on the draft of an international climate deal expected to be finalized next December in Paris. The overall goal of the climate negotiations is to cap the global rise in temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
In the midst of the conference, Roman Catholic bishops from around the world called for a stricter standard: capping the global temperature increase to below 1.5 degree Celsius.
“Central to this is to put an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100 percent renewables with sustainable energy access for all,” the bishops wrote. The bishops noted there is a particular obligation to assist the poor when replacing the use of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, with wind and solar energy or other green technology.
Pope Francis himself made his commitment to the environment clear from the outset, announcing at his inaugural Mass that the Gospel compels Christians to “protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!
“It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
Earlier this year, Pope Francis warned, “If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”
Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a coalition of organizations focused on protecting “God’s creation,” says the debate in the church isn’t about whether global warming is real but where ethical obligations fall.
“The science debate is over,” Misleh said. The question is “what does it mean to be a Catholic in a climate-threatened world and how do we address those moral issues?”
PRAYERS FOR HEALING
The Franciscan Sisters of Mary have over the last decade gradually taken a more peripheral role in the collection of hospitals they helped establish in the region, now known as SSM Health, which employs some 7,000 doctors and more than 8,000 nurses.
As a result, the nuns no longer make the kind of money they once made in the health care business. In fact, many no longer bring home any kind of paycheck. In 2011, they closed the convent in Richmond Heights formally known as St. Mary of the Angels. Today, most of them live in a retirement community a mile-and-a-half away from the landfills.
Still, by living frugally and consolidating resources, the religious sisters have managed to invest millions in green companies.
“We had some really sharp women over the years who knew how to manage our finances,” Derer said.
Outside their monetary contributions, the religious sisters also have tried to have real impact on the ground. The sisters help lead monthly community meetings centered on the landfills, starting each with a nondenominational prayer.
“I found it to be incredibly refreshing to be perfectly honest,” said Ed Smith, safe energy director for Missouri Coalition for the Environment and a regular presence at the monthly gatherings. “The West Lake Landfill has become an incredibly political issue when it shouldn’t be and that’s because of the money involved.”
Smith says the nuns’ use of words such as “compassion” at the discussions has not gone unnoticed. “They certainly bring something that nobody else does,” Smith said. “A sense that this is bigger than all of us.”
As the nuns see it, the two agencies in the position to clean up the landfills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and owner Republic Services, have few options:
• Do nothing.
• Build a rock, clay and soil cap over the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill, as the EPA suggested in 2008. (The EPA is currently re-evaluating that plan because of concerns about the underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill.)
• Transport the radioactive material to sites specifically designed for long term storage of such waste. The Franciscan Sisters of Mary believe this is the best choice.
A Republic Services spokesman noted that the sisters lack expertise and authority regarding the landfills. “Although the Sisters are not scientists or regulators, we sincerely appreciate their concern and prayers,” said the spokesman, Richard Callow. (The Archdiocese of St. Louis briefly owned part of the site after it was willed to it by the one-time owners of the West Lake Quarry and Material Co.)
At a recent vigil, about 10 nuns gathered in the empty gas station on St. Charles Rock Road to say a prayer.
“We pray your healing upon this sad and sick place.”
“We’re breathing this poison every day,” added Sister Fran Haarmann.
Derer hopes their dedication to the cause will not go unrewarded.
“I think a lot of people have just gotten worn down. The delays seem interminable, and that’s very discouraging,” Derer said.
UPDATED Tuesday at 6:00 a.m. to correct name of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.