Come dream with us, St. Francis of Assisi sisters redeem the land
June 1, 2012
By Katherine Keller
Franciscan sisters redeem the land
The genesis of this transformation springs from the dreams and imagination of two Catholic sisters who are shepherding the restoration project on the grounds of the convent at 3221 S. Lake Drive.
Sisters Helene Mertes (retired but “full-time volunteer, totally involved”) and Mary Lou Schramer (Director of Clare Hall, a residence hall for retired sisters located on the seminary grounds) are the indefatigable visionaries and leaders who have developed the ambitious plan and who are in the early stages of its implementation.
The restoration plan reflects the values and history of the community. Mertes and Schramer are members of the St. Francis of Assisi. Their community possesses a teaching tradition and adheres to the philosophy that the web of life is sacred, that all living things must be respected, Schramer said.
The plan is the result of an environmental study that members of the convent commissioned in 2009. A Land-Use Committee was formed in response. The committee’s project list reflects “the sisters’ ideas and their dreams to make the land sustainable for future generations and to provide a legacy of land-use by example and teaching.”
The Promethean land-use plan includes thirteen “dreams” among which is the restoration of the Deer Creek valley that runs along the west and north boundaries of the convent’s property. Establishing an urban forest on the former St. Mary’s Academy athletic field and creating a labyrinth next to a “reflection area” are two of the plan’s major projects and are designed to convert existing grass lawns to a wild, bio-diverse landscape, teeming with native flora and fauna.
Mertes and Schramer have already accomplished some of the projects on their dream list. They’ve upgraded their orchard, removing old, overgrown cherry trees and planting new 19 new fruit trees. Cherry, plum, pear, peach and apple trees are growing in their orchard, 38 trees in all.
They established two large vegetable gardens in 2009 that are complemented with newly established beehives and compost that is made from yard and food waste. The bees will pollinate the garden and orchard and the compost will fertilize the seedlings and gardens. Eventually the sisters plan to create a perennial herb and fruit garden, and to expand the vegetable production. They want to build hoop house (20 x 48 feet) to grow seedlings, including native plants.
Last year they harvested 910 pounds of potatoes, 2,500 pounds of tomatoes, 450 pounds of green beans, and many servings of salad greens.
Retired sisters, Canticle and Juniper Court residents (who live in housing on the convent property), and neighbors pitch in to help Mertes and Schramer with the gardens.
One of the residents tills the garden and is learning to tend the bees and hives. Others volunteer to help weed, harvest, and clean its bounty. Last summer volunteers showed up at the garden at 6:30 in the morning to pick green beans, Mertes said. Others cleaned and prepped them in the kitchen at Clare Hall, and by noon the fresh-picked beans were part of the luncheon meal.
“We do things in spurts. When the potatoes need to be hoed, I’ll call about five, six people and they come out and we’ll just weed or hill the potatoes,” Schramer said. “We can get four people, we can get six people, we can get eight people who will spend an hour, hour-and-a-half. That’s about all that people can handle.”
Volunteers also help remove invasives, tend the arbor and grapes, and will help plant native plants and wildflowers, among other myriad tasks. Mertes and Schramer have also received advice from people at the Department of Natural Resources, Milwaukee County Parks, beekeeper Charlie Koenen, and a master gardener.
The sisters are overseeing reparations to the convent’s 100-year-old grape arbor which has been reinvigorated with new vines.
Water use plays a large part in their land-use plans. Mertes and Schramer said they’re just beginning to study water management in order to find methods to use gray water, collect and use rain water, and to minimize waste and run-off. Rain gardens figure in their plans, along with cisterns and fantasies of porous pavement. Earth-friendly pavement is a fantasy, they said, because it is crushingly cost prohibitive.
The education component of their plan is broad and deep. The sisters plan to construct an ecological learning center using sustainable materials powered by clean energy sources. It will have a classroom, project room, library, and gift shop. The education center will illustrate good stewardship by example. “It will also include a full kitchen and be a place where young people and adults learn to grow, prepare, and preserve nutritious food while developing their respect for the land and an appreciation of sustainable living,” said Schramer, who holds a nursing degree.
Collaboration with existing teaching centers is a goal, including working with the Urban Ecology Center. But the sisters want their work on the grounds to include their direct neighbors. They dream that their neighbors will be inspired to transform their lawns from grass to native plants, incorporating systems that capture and use rainwater. They see their work as a teaching tool so that neighbors’ lawns also become bio-diverse habitats “to help support all of God’s creatures.”
A monumental project of the sisters’ land-use plan is the destruction and removal of three invasive plants: garlic mustard, reed canary grass, and Japanese knotweed. They’ve cleared about 2.5 acres of the knotweed (a member of the buckwheat family) but it is pernicious and persistent. A single plant and its clones grow to several acres in size, and according to the Wisconsin DNR, “spreads primarily by extensive networks of underground rhizomes, which can reach 6 feet deep, 60 feet long, and become strong enough to damage pavement and penetrate building foundations.”
Sister Helene, who received a horticulture degree from the University of Wisconsin, said it was probably first introduced in the area as an ornamental plant. She said they’ve found that it extends from the driveway that leads to the seminary just south of the convent property, to the Deer Creek Valley on the convent grounds. Worse, it had “jumped the creek” and was heading for the forest on the rise west of the convent. Annual rye will be planted in the cleared area to stabilize the soil, followed by the reintroduction of native plants and grasses, including aquatic species.
Central to the restoration plan is repopulating the land with native plant species. Creating a forest and rejuvenating the wetlands will support other life forms, Schramer said.
They are also looking toward a warming planet and a warmer Milwaukee. “We’re studying invasives that are further south, that could begin creeping up, and how to keep them under control,” Mertes said.
The sisters take a broad view of their work on the convent’s grounds. “It would be a legacy to leave behind. As we become an aging community, we can still teach. We can prepare the land for the future,” Mertes said. “We can teach [people] to respect the land.”
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