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A 2-century-old Catholic convent is fighting for conservation in Ky.

The Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky.
Ryan Van Velzer
The Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky.

For a 2-century-old Catholic convent outside Loretto, Ky., conservation is an act of faith.

In a state where prosperity was forged in coal furnaces, the Sisters of Loretto have divested from fossil fuels, raise their own grass-fed beef through sustainable agriculture and protest the occasional pipeline.

On Wednesday, the Sisters of Loretto signed a conservation agreement with the Bluegrass Land Conservancy protecting more than 650 acres of forest, farms and waterways for generations to come.

“Our theology would see God as present in every aspect of creation,” said Susan Classen, a community member at the Sisters of Loretto. “If you feel like Earth is sacred and you experience it being degraded then yeah, you stand up for what you believe.”

A dozen years after their founding in 1812, the Sisters of Loretto settled on a working farm in Nerinx, Ky., and became a center from which they sent out teachers to the Western frontier. Today, the Loretto Motherhouse includes a nursing home, retreat centers, a working farm, heritage center and art gallery.

For more than four decades, the Sisters of Loretto have been implementing conservation practices on their land with the goals of protecting undisturbed spaces, restoring land and reducing carbon emissions.

Last week, sisters and community members appeared in Bullitt County Circuit Court to protestLG&E’s proposed gas pipeline through conservation lands owned by Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. They also opposed the Bluegrass pipeline, which never came to fruition.

The Sisters of Loretto pose with the Bluegrass Land Conservancy after signing a conservation easement on Jan. 19, 2023.
Ryan Van Velzer
The Sisters of Loretto pose with the Bluegrass Land Conservancy after signing a conservation easement on Jan. 19, 2023.

The signing of the conservation easement is the culmination of decades of work for everyone involved. The agreement donates 654 acres of land surrounding the Motherhouse to the Bluegrass Land Conservancy, limiting future uses of land to protect wildlife and habitat.

One recent estimate from Zeb Weese, the former chair of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, was that only 2% and 5% of Kentucky’s natural areas are conserved in total.

Ashley Greathouse, conservation director with Bluegrass Land Conservancy, said the convent’s contribution adds to the more than 32,000 acres their organization protects in the bluegrass region.

“They’ve been incredibly thoughtful in their discussion, and this easement in particular has a lot more detail as to how each part of the property should be managed in the future,” she said.

Jessie Rathburn is earth education and advocacy coordinator with the Sisters of Loretto. She said their faith calls on them to protect the planet. That includes protecting the lands that have created the conditions to foster life: sequestering carbon, producing oxygen and food and providing habitat.

“These recent decades have found us on a journey to bring our human activity into alignment with Earth’s capacity to foster life,” she said.

To preserve the habitability of the planet, humankind has to end its reliance on fossil fuels, protect natural spaces and preserve the planet’s biodiversity.

Climate scientists warn the world must essentially halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees and protect the habitability of the planet. Countries around the planet, including the U.S., have agreed to a goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 to limit further biodiversity losses.

Rathburn said these intertwining existential crises can feel overwhelming, but her spirituality grounds her in a lineage of people and species who have cared for the natural world.

“My role is to fit myself in that long lineage,” she said. “We understand that we are extensions of Earth. We are not lords over earth. We are earthlings.”

Correction: This story previously misspelled the name of Zeb Weese, the the former chair of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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