Ministry helps keep sisters down to earth

Thursday, July 05, 2018 - Updated: 9:28 am

By JOHN FRANKO Staff Writer

Walk the grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden and you will find an oasis of greenery that relaxes the soul and provides an instant measure of peace. The more than 80 acres give testament to the order’s commitment to conserving resources and living in sustainable ways.

At the heart of the commitment is the sisters’ Earth Tones ministry. It reflects their reverence for the earth by promoting an awareness of the relationship between God and nature.

“There is something really healing about it, where you can see green,” said Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz, director of ecology and environment for the order. She works with local farmers, children and community groups to promote environmental education.

The grounds include a labyrinth, two community gardens, a garden for the sisters, walking and tree trails, a grotto with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, fruit trees, a grape arbor and apiaries consisting of some 20 beehives. A certified beekeeper, Sister Lyn maintains the hives, which produce honey and other products that are sold.

Sister Lyn gave a tour of the grounds shortly after returning from the nearby Northern Lights Shopping Center, where she had been called to take care of a swarm of bees.

The grounds reflect the order’s apostolic community roots, she said, that promote a deep personal and communal prayer life and enhances work with the wider community.

“It’s what we’ve been invited to do by Scripture since day one — to serve,” she said.

The labyrinth was built by six sisters in 2000 and can be used by anyone for prayer and reflection. The walking paths include one that follows the Stations of the Cross. Tree trails include bridges constructed by Eagle Scouts, and a couple of them are handicap-accessible.

“It provides that space for contemplative prayer and presence,” Sister Lyn said.

Efforts to preserve the ecosystem are paramount. Sister Lyn pointed out that chemicals are not used because a watershed runs through the property and it is important to protect plant growth such as dandelions, which provide nectar for bees.

The apiaries sustain themselves by yielding honey and wax that is used to make moisturizing creams, lip balm and soaps that are sold at local farmers markets and online. The Sisters of St. Joseph partner with the Beaver County Rehabilitation Center, which provides people to label the products. Sister Lyn said it reflects the sisters’ wish that the venture helps others.

A favorite among the order is a chicken coop with 10 chickens. The eggs supply protein to soup kitchens and the sisters, and are sold to maintain the coop.

The other members of the community have embraced the opportunity to adopt the environment as their own. Sister Mary Morgan spoke of the many varieties of trees on the property, including her favorite, a Norway maple.

“They asked us to go through the woods and make them our friends, and that’s what I did,” she said.

The twin 2,500-square-foot community gardens are farmed by some 17 families and feature more than two dozen raised beds. The families are not charged a fee, but they’re asked to donate at least 25 pounds of food to food banks and pantries. Some 3,000 pounds of vegetables were donated last year, Sister Lyn said.

Another 2,500-square-foot garden provides produce for the motherhouse. Soaker hoses are used to distribute water.

She handled the Earth Tones duties by herself for almost a decade. They included fixing tractors and other equipment. She is now assisted by Luke Badaczewski, who serves as coordinator of the community gardens and volunteer services.

Sister Lyn has a master’s degree in earth literacy from St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana. She serves as secretary of the Beaver Valley Beekeepers Association, and is a former president and vice president. Her memberships include the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network and the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture. She speaks at schools, parishes and garden clubs, and mentors students, scouts, gardeners and beekeepers.

In addition, Sister Lyn invites young people to learn about gardening and simple landscaping tasks through the Green Teens summer internship project.

It has been a diverse path for the sister who once served as director of religious education and formation ministry.

“I have a passion for it,” she said. “To be open to where God leads.”

She welcomes people to visit the grounds. For those interested, volunteer workdays are held once a month from March to November. Volunteers include youth groups and confirmation classes. Upcoming volunteer days are Aug. 18, Sept. 8, Oct. 20 and Nov. 10, beginning at 10 a.m.

Other Earth Tones projects include nature retreats, consultations/presentations on sustainability and youth garden/cooking programs.

The Sisters of St. Joseph purchased the land in Baden in 1898 and relocated the congregation and its school from Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1902. From 1901 to the mid-1960s, it was the site of a working farm with seasonal workers, pigs, cows and plow horses. A barn, believed to be built by the Amish without the use of nails, still remains. Three sisters currently live in Trinity House, which once housed the seasonal workers.

Also on the property is Girls Hope House, which houses and educates academically capable girls 10-18. It is one of two homes operated by Girls Hope of Pittsburgh.

Honey from the apiaries and other items related to the hives are available for purchase by visiting stjoseph-baden.org, going to “Support us,” then “Gift shop.” Information is also available by contacting the Book Nook at 724-869-6549, or e-mailing eadams@stjoseph-baden.org.

Information on Earth Tones projects is available by contacting Sister Lyn at 724-869-6524, or by e-mailing lynszym@stjoseph-baden.org.

Volunteer information is available by contacting Badaczewski at 724-869-6550 or e-mailing lbadaczewski@stjoseph-baden.org. Helpers may also sign up by visiting stjoseph-baden.org and going to “Get involved,” then “Be a volunteer.”

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