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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

… God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1: 1, 31).

Totally dependent on Earth, humans are called to live sustainably so that future generations may enjoy the plenitude of God’s creation. Living sustainably is rooted in CSA’s history and mission.  Father Caspar Rehrl, the earliest founder of the Congregation, once said, "Oh, how I wish that the Sisters of St. Agnes might someday live on this beautiful land watered by springs."  That land eventually became CSA’s St. Joseph Springs Farm and, in 2002, the congregation fulfilled his vision and opened their current motherhouse on the land. We commit to being good stewards of the land and collaborating with First Nation People today on issues that impact our common home and the common good.

Caring for creation is an urgent responsibility, Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’ (2015). In response, the Sisters of St. Agnes intensified their commitment to sustainability by adopting a corporate stance to Care for Earth (2016). In 2017, the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes voted to begin the process of preserving their property for future generations. Sister Jean Steffes, general superior of the congregation said, “Through this commitment we are living out the Care for Earth: Home of All Living Creatures corporate stance as well as our membership in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform.”

On January 10, 2022, the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes (CSA) signed a Conservation Easement Document, in partnership with Glacial Lakes Conservancy (GLC), protecting 237 acres of Earth in perpetuity. CSA land, with its buildings, forests, prairies, wetlands, farm fields, cemetery, labyrinth, nature trails, and three stream channels running down the Niagara Escarpment will be protected from commercial development for all time.

While the sisters will continue to serve as owners and caretakers of the land, GLC is entrusted with upholding the provisions of the easement.

Sister Susan Seeby, a general councilor for the congregation at the time, said, "Considering our Mission Statement, we may say that this conservancy, too, will bring about a manifestation of the risen Christ in our world for those who take the time to come and see the prairies, the wetlands, and the woods teeming with life. The Conservation Easement journey has had many steps, and each of us in CSA has participated along the way. From the careful environmental considerations during the construction of the motherhouse in 2000, to the building of hermitages, planting and maintenance of prairies and woods throughout the years, gardening in the raised beds, even to the choice to offer a ‘green burial’ and the generosity of spirit of those who chose them."

For more than 160 years, the Sisters have tended the land. Learn more about the various areas on the property:

Conserving the Niagara Escarpment

 The Niagara Escarpment stretches in a wide arc from eastern Wisconsin through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across Ontario, Canada, and on through the Niagara Falls in New York. The rock forming the escarpment was originally deposited as lime mud on an ancient sea floor about 430 million years ago. What remains is the result of uplift, weathering, and erosion. The escarpment is home to over 240 different rare, threatened, or endangered plant and animal species, including white cedar trees that are more than 1,000 years old. It is also an important source of groundwater recharge. However, the natural cracks in the rocks and the thin layer of soil covering it leave the groundwater very vulnerable to contaminants. The escarpment is a Statewide Critical Natural Resource per priority study area by Natural Heritage Conservation Program and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Many highly specialized species, such as rare terrestrial snails, are found in these microhabitats and some of them may occur in few or no other locations in the world (WDNR, 2002).

Maintaining and Restoring Native Prairies

Also called tallgrass prairie, mesic prairie was common historically but is extremely rare today. This grassland community occurs on rich, moist, well-drained sites, usually on level or gently rolling glacial topography. The dominant plant is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). The grasses little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), needle grass (Hesperostipa spartea), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) are also frequent. The forb layer is diverse in the number, size, and physiognomy of the species. Common taxa include the prairie docks (Silphium spp.), leadplant (Amorpha canescens), heath and smooth asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides and S. laeve), prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), prairie sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis).

The following plant species have been documented on the CSA land and are found in a narrow range of plant communities: Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Small wild leek (Allium tricoccum), wild black currant (Rives americanum), Zig-Zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Common broad-leaf aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), Early meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum), Large flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Swamp aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum), and Yellow avens (Geum aleppicum). The CSA land also includes Red baneberry (Actaea rubra), and Alternate leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which have a narrow range of growing conditions and have a low tolerance for disturbance. 

At the time of European settlement it is estimated that there was over 800,000 acres of mesic prairie in southern Wisconsin. Today less than 100 acres of intact tallgrass prairie still exists, and is associated with other prairie communities, various wetland types, and oak openings. Mesic prairies are rare today because areas they once occupied have deep, rich soils built by the extensive root systems of the prairie plants, and have been converted to some of the most productive croplands in the world.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, burning the prairie every 2-3 years is vital to ensuring a thriving and safe ecosystem. Below ground, the native plants that populate the prairie have incredibly large and strong root systems that filter water, reduce erosion, and store carbon in the ground helping to mitigate its impact on climate change. Above ground, the prairie contributes to a healthy ecological system by providing natural seed sources to a diverse population of birds, food sources for important pollinators like native bees and Monarch butterflies, and roosting locations for birds, dragonflies, and lizards. 

During a prairie burn, the deep roots of the native plantings ensure the plants will survive, while invasive and non-native plants with short root structures are removed. The dead plant matter that has collected over the past few years is also burned off which returns its nutrients to the soil and also prevents it from dangerous spontaneous and uncontrolled burning.

Many animals that call the prairie home are burrowers and are quick to take refuge in their underground spaces, while birds and other flying insects head to a portion of the prairie that is not being burned. Their favorite plants regrow swiftly and by the time summer arrives, the prairie is once again filled with beautiful blossoms and swaying grasses.

Protecting and Restoring the Woodlands

The property includes approximately 26 acres of dry-mesic woods located on the Niagara Escarpment. These types of forests are considered vulnerable in Wisconsin due to a fairly restricted range, relatively few populations or occurrences, recent and widespread declines, threats, or other factors.

The extensive oak forests of southwestern Wisconsin have proven to be of high importance to migrating birds as the peak spring migration periods for many of these birds is somewhat synchronized with the flowering of the oaks, opening of the oak leaf buds, and the appearance of a major hatch of caterpillars—an important food source for insectivores such as the wood warblers, vireos, gnatcatchers, and others needing to replenish their energy reserves after their long journeys.  

Dry-mesic woods are characterized by northern red oak (Quercus rubra), white oak (Q. alba), red maple (Acer rubrum), and sometimes American basswood (Tilia americana). Associates include shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), bitternut-hickory (C. cordiformis), black cherry (Prunus serotina), butternut (Juglans cinerea), and American elm (Ulmus americana). In the easternmost parts of southern Wisconsin, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is sometimes a component of Southern Dry-mesic Forest. A land survey completed in 2000 revealed four native red cedar trees growing on the CSA portion of the ledge, the only conifer native to the escarpment.
Multiple uncommon ecological communities are found on the escarpment which provide suitable habitat for numerous uncommon species. 

The forested portion of the property is a favored type of home to species such as Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescent), Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea), Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina), Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornate), and Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).

CSA collaborates with the US Forest Service to make a long-term assessment of the woodlands. Every seven years the Forest Service measures trees in four sites: three in the woodlands and one in the prairie. The information gathered from these four sites is used to extrapolate information about the health of the surrounding 640 acre environment from the health of the trees in the CSA woodlands. 

In addition to measuring the height and circumference of select trees, the understory plants within a 12-foot radius of the tree, such as tree saplings, flowers, and mushrooms, are also used to assess health of the ecosystem. Trees marked with white paint were assessed in 2023 as part of the seven-year cycle. 

Harvesting Renewable Energy

The 880-panel solar installation on our motherhouse grounds is a tangible reflection of our commitment to care for Earth. Our solar panels generate 50% of our energy needs (approximately $35,000 worth of electricity is generated each year) and substantially reduce our carbon footprint.  In 2020, when Alliant Energy announced the launch of its first community solar project in Fond du Lac, CSA supported the endeavor by purchasing 538 solar panels (called “blocks”) of the solar garden. This investment means that the entire St. Agnes Convent and the on-site maintenance building will be 100% powered by the sun. 

Generating Sustenance Sustainably

In keeping with the historic use of the property as a farm, approximately 112.4 acres of CSA land is leased for use as sustainable agricultural fields. “Sustainable Agriculture” means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term, (a) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (b) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; (c) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; (d) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and (e) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole. [7 US Code §3103(19)] Such production practices include, by way of example, implementing Best Management Practices through programs of the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that minimize chemical inputs, minimize soil erosion and manage nutrient applications, reduce or eliminate soil tillage and use of fossil fuels, build soil health, maintain perennial vegetative cover through cover crops and rotational grazing, and protect water quality through buffer strips.

These methods promote stewardship of the soil and water resources, including protecting the streams by reducing soil erosion and enhancing surface and ground water quality of the Lake Winnebago watershed and the Lake Michigan basin.

On August 3, 2022, a kestrel nesting box was erected near the edge of the largest farm field and another was erected in the prairie on the escarpment, in response to a request from Danny Erickson of the Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station. American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) are a widespread raptor in North America, but recent trends show a population decline prompting many studies on this decline. A shortage of suitable nesting habitat may be a contributing factor to decline, so many nest box monitoring programs across North America have been created. Kestrels are cavity-nesters that readily adapt to human-made nest boxes, making observing Kestrel reproduction relatively simple. Kestrels are highly tolerant to nesting site disturbance, handling, and individual capture and marking by researchers. In late June 2023, a breeding pair who took residence in the box on the ledge were successful in hatching four nestlings. On July 7, 2023, less than one year after the boxes were installed, sisters, associates, staff, and Glacial Lakes Conservancy volunteers, and head researcher Danny Erickson came together to place bands on the ankles of the nestlings. 

Preserving the Integrity of Springs and Streams

Father Caspar Rehrl, the earliest founder of the Congregation, once said, "Oh, how I wish that the Sisters of St. Agnes might someday live on this beautiful land watered by springs."  When Father Rehrl first passed through the ledge east of Fond du Lac in the 1850s, he found seven freshwater springs tumbling down its expanse. Those springs quenched his thirst. Through careful protection and management, three springs still traverse from east to west on CSA property and run to nearby Lake Winnebago, though their water is no longer safe to drink.