Solar energy paying off for Catholic sisters

The nearly 60 women who comprise the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross know how to time things right. On the day Pope Francis made a worldwide plea to save the environment, the Sisters advanced their efforts for the protection of Earth.

The Green Bay religious community's year-old solar-powered energy system, which has yielded substantial cost savings for the Catholic order, is now available for public viewing.

A new grass path takes visitors past an array of 416 solar panels in a large meadow behind the order's motherhouse. Seven plaques with information about the project and solar energy are on the path.

The free, self-guided tours started June 18, when Bishop David Ricken of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay blessed the site during a dedication event.

"We all have a responsibility to care for creation that's around us and to make sure that we don't just take advantage of it but that we actually improve it for the sake of those generations that will come after us," Ricken said at the service. "That we respect it, that we use it properly and that we make sure that it's maintained and made even more beautiful for generations to come after. That's really an act of faith, and that's an act of respect."

Ricken referred to the public unveiling of the Sisters' solar project as Pope Francis released his encyclical letter on the environment at the Vatican in Rome as a "beautiful providence, not a coincidence."

The title of the 184-page manifesto is "Laudato Si." Cited in St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of the Sun" prayer poem in the 13th century, the Italian phrase means "Praise Be to You."

The pope, in his second encyclical which has a subtitle of "On Care for Our Common Home," condemns the erosion of the planet through climate change brought by "reckless" behavior with unsustainable lifestyle and production practices in modern-day society. He said the planet has been pushed to its "breaking point."

"The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," the pope said in delivering the encyclical. "In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish."

The Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross are doing their part to keep the environment clean as well as provide another eco-friendly component to their immense natural landscape at the motherhouse with the use of solar energy. The 9-year-old facility sits on a hill off Bay Settlement Road overlooking the bay of Green Bay.

"We wanted a way, a concrete way, to show our Franciscan value of care for all of creation and also to continue the sustainability that we tried to incorporate in our building when we built on this spot," said Sister Rose Jochmann, who chaired the order's Renewable Energy Committee.

"We also wanted to be able to use energy in our building that was completely green, renewable, no pollution and not using natural resources," she added. "And, we also wanted to use this project to witness sustainability and to educate others about sustainability and solar and renewable energy."

Since its activation last June, Jochmann said the 112-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system has cut the utility costs at the motherhouse by 28 percent. The efficiency was more pronounced in March with 47 percent of the energy consumption in the convent coming from the solar panels.

Jochmann said the savings on the energy bill after the first year of having the alternative source came to about $12,500.

"But, what is priceless for us is we're using less of our natural resources, we're polluting less because we're using solar," she said.

What's more, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross made a cost-free investment in the project.

The $286,000 price tag was funded by a nearly $75,000 grant from Focus on Energy, a statewide energy-efficiency and renewable-resource program, and community donors, including a major gift from the estate of the late Joe and Evie Neufeld. The solar project was dedicated in memory of the Neufelds, who lived in Ledgeview and supported the religious order for many years.

"It is a blessing for our community, for our Mother Sister Earth and the globe," said Sister Donna Koch, community president for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross.

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