Answering the cry of the Earth

Siobhan Tanner meets Mercy Sisters in West Cork who have planted a forest to protect bio-diversity

Siobhan Tanner

Fifteen years ago, a small group of enthusiastic Mercy Sisters took a stand against the environmental degradation of the land. Moving onto 24-acre greenfield, owned by the order in Rosscarbery, West Cork, they began planting trees.

Sitting in a cabin built of recycled wood and heated by a geothermal system on the site, Sr Maria Hayes recalls those first days. “We were very enthusiastic but we didn’t know anything,” and the impressions of the local people – “they are certainly more open to the idea now, in the beginning they thought we were bananas.”

Today, that field is a young forest, planted with 20,000 native trees. It boasts a poly tunnel of organic vegetables that feeds the two women living there, fruit trees, herb beds, a composting toilet, a community plot and a memorial grove where people plant trees in memory of their dead loved ones.

“We just plant and hope the animals will come,” says Sr Maria simply of the Pairc a Tobair project.

Though simple, the goal could be a difficult one. If climate continues to rise at the current rate, one million species are predicted to become extinct. Scientists have now identified that extinction rates on the planet are 1,000 to 10,000 the normal background rate.

Ireland’s record

Meanwhile, Ireland’s record on bio-diversity is one of the worst in Europe. Practices of clear-felling and the planting of non-native Sitka spruce by Coillte, the State’s forestry company, have undermined efforts to restore natural habitat.

In this context, the practices at Pairc a Tobair such as using open pollinated seed take on new significance. Most commercial seed has been genetically engineered to be single pollinating making people dependent on giant seed suppliers like Monsanto for future crops and threatening bio-diversity.

Practical solutions like this are discussed at a monthly meeting of a group of about 30 Mercy Sisters who reflect on and plan for a future of environmental decline holding talks and screenings with community environmental groups. “I’m not an extremist,” says Sr Margaret Twomey. “People need to make a living but we need to re-interpret the idea that man has dominion over the Earth.”

She is talking about the impending increase in cattle farming in Ireland. The end of the EU milk quota scheme this year will see Irish farmers shift from dairy to cattle; an intensive mode of farming that produces large amounts of methane gas, a primary cause of global warming. 

“I heard on the news Glanbia is expanding and people think this is a great thing but people don’t think what this will mean for the environment. There are too many contradictions,” she says.

With a total membership of almost 400 sisters in the province, the small group do not represent a major shift within the order – the effort to source food locally, for example, is not practiced by the convent – but they do however represent a growing awareness within the religious in Ireland to take a pioneering role in the effort to combat climate change.

Called the Interconnectedness of all Life, the movement is inspired by the writings of Passionist priest Thomas Berry who saw religion’s proper role as creating a new story for the planet based on a respect for the Earth rather than a consumerist story.

“We need to rethink the nature. To broaden our perspective of love your neighbour. To think of the animals as our neighbours,” says Sr Margaret, who recently completed a MA in Ecology and Religion.

The decision to make the land a future wildlife sanctuary was a statement made all the more powerful in the context of the property boom when the Church and religious orders all over the country were cashing in on high property prices.

And the Rosscarbery project was not the only one. A group of Dominican nuns in Wicklow made an even bolder statement: using 80 acres that had been zoned for development, they founded an Táirseach, a centre for sustainable living and a farm.

So is there a movement within the Church to take a role in the environmental crisis?

Sr Margaret is hesitant to agree. “With institutional set-ups it’s difficult, everyone wants a bargain, that mentality is everywhere in the Church and society at large.”

Five years ago, the Bishop’s Conference of Ireland issued a Lenten letter called ‘The Cry of the Earth’. The document was a bold statement from the bishops that called on Catholics to act to preserve the Earth’s resources. It laid a foundation for parishes in Ireland to become a platform for a major offensive against the unethical business practices that were exploiting and destroying the planet’s resources.

In practice, however, the document’s passionate rhetoric remained just that, with the exception of a few parishes, namely in Kerry.

“It wasn’t advertised, it wasn’t promoted,” says Sr Maria. “They just left a bundle at the back of the church.”

Compared to the Church of Ireland and the Quaker congregations, Catholic parishes have lagged way behind. Initiatives like ‘greening the liturgy’ by referencing the environmental problems in homilies, converting to environmental heating systems and divesting from unethical businesses have in the last decade become commonplace among non-Catholic denominations in Ireland. Within the Catholic Church, however, eco-initiatives have tended to come from religious orders rather than from a diocesan level.

Asked why this might be so, Sr Margaret says: “Living in communities too you have a broader range of views reflected. I suppose we have a democratic system of governance, whereas the dioceses are governed by hierarchical appointments.”


Every six years members of the order vote for the six members from their community to sit on the chapter. It was this system of governance that elected Sr Miriam Kerrisk as provincial, a nun who was willing to translate a concern for the environment into real action. “We always had the support of our leadership,” says Sr Margaret. “This was the strength of our initiative. Also we are more focused on reflective living.”

This year, that Lenten letter was re-issued, this time including a supplement by Trócaire, the NGO supported by the Irish bishops. Trócaire has become one of the loudest voices of the  climate change campaign in Ireland, focusing on justice for climate refugees. The organisation has generated impressive events and resources for parishes to use. The efforts of Trócaire, however, are not necessarily reflective of a diocesan effort.

Awareness, within the Church and society at large, continues to be the main obstacle to the reforms needed to avert disaster. For despite a decade of corroboration by climate change scientists, environmentally-friendly practices have not become the norm.

“People are afraid, they can’t imagine these scenarios and if they face them, they risk falling into despair,” says Sr Margaret.  And this is where the Church is perfectly positioned to play a key role – cultivating hope with a healthy dose of faith.

Nor do the sisters accept that simply praying to God for intervention is what is required. “Hope shouldn’t let people off the hook, we should make every effort to save the planet and then also believe in providence. Hope only becomes important when there are dire circumstances,” says Sr Maria.

“If the Church could use its existing platform, the parish set-up, to spread that kind of awareness, it could really make a difference,’ says Sr Margaret.

“The Church needs to engage with this because all of human life is threatened.”