Green gospel: sisters live their calling by making clean power

Ron Wilson and Sr. Mary Magdalen installing the turbine. at the Dominican Sisters new hydroelectric project. The generator means clean renewable energy and also helps the sisters live their vocation. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos - The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

By Nicholas Elbers, The B.C. Catholic

Photos by the Dominican Sisters, Queen of Peace Monastery

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Inspired by their contemplative calling, as well as lessons learned from local First Nations peoples, the Dominican sisters of Queen of Peace Monastery have finished a new hydro electric project that represents more than just clean renewable energy; it’s helping the sisters live their vocation to listen to and care for the earth.

The community has a special love for nature inspired by the Upper Squamish Valley where the monastery sits at the foot of Cloudburst Mountain.

“The place that we have been given is so beautiful; what a gift it was to be given this land – to love it and cherish it,” the monastery’s prioress, Sr. Claire Rolf, said in an interview.

Visitors to the monastery’s chapel don’t just find themselves in the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament; they can see the mountains though large windows behind the sanctuary. In this way visitors are able to see what Sr. Marie Thomas calls “the two faces of God.”

“To live in a place like this with such incredible natural beauty, where the outdoors is such big part of the local community, it just makes sense to honour nature,” Thomas said.

It took the gifts of many people to help the sisters give the gift forward, said Thomas. “We built something [the hydro generator] that serves the community now, that will also serve future generations,” while respecting the forest and local environment.

Sister Marie Etienne installing an electricity cable. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

The new hydroelectric generator replaces an older hydro installation that came with the property purchased by the sisters in 2010, prior to the community settling there in 2012.

The old generator was ill suited to the needs to the community and refurbishing the old machinery would have been too costly and invasive to the local environment, said SRolf.

The new generator, which is quieter and makes a smaller ecological impact, was built after receiving recommendations from a local Squamish First Nation member and commissioning an environmental impact assessment in 2011.

The hydro project was already underway in 2015 when Pope Francis released his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, with its encouragement to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and “[develop] sources of renewable energy.”

The Pope’s words were a “great encouragement” for the sisters and did “the work of articulating” their vision of the environment, Rolf said.

Now complete, generator produces up to 100 kilowatts of clean, renewable electricity, which fully supplies the energy needs of the monastery – including its workshops and chaplain’s residence.

In the summer dry season the generator is shut off to protect the local reservoir, but during peak winter output the monastery returns its excess power to the grid by selling it through B.C. Hydro’s net metering program.

The generator began operation and was blessed Oct. 4, the feast St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. It was purely coincidental but clearly one of those “winks from God” we see when we pay attention, said Rolf.

The generator is just one part of the sisters’ larger world view, in which voluntary poverty teaches reliance on every gift of God, including those from nature. The sisters also see the natural world as not only something to use, but something to cultivate for mutual good.

Attention, contemplation, and prayer are the centre of religious life at Queen of Peace Monastery, and they strongly inform all that the community does.

“We live a life of contemplative prayer,” said Rolf, which means “living a life of listening and looking with love.”

It also means “adjusting” themselves “to the ways that God looks at the world.”

That adjustment meant making as little impact on the environment as possible during the generator’s construction, so they did as much of the work by hand as possible to reduce the need for heavy machinery and safeguard the biodiversity of the rainforest.

Winches and cables were used to pull most of the 600 metres of pipe up an old logging road. Heavy machinery was only needed for a small section behind the turbine building.

No strangers to hard work, the sisters would intersperse construction work between prayers and communal meals. Sr. Marie Etienne described in joyful terms how she’d lug 25-kilogram bags of concrete up to the build site and said it was a gift to see how work on the generator flowed with everything else in their days.

Working on the generator taught the sisters a greater respect for the forest as well as the people who came before them as they built connections with the local Squamish First Nation people.

When Rolf said she wanted to learn from them about their ideas and traditions from them, she was simply told to “listen.”

“Listening has meant an expanding of my prayer to all the voiceless innocent creatures who cannot speak for themselves,” she said. “My prayer is bigger, but also more vulnerable.”

Although the local First Nations members are their closest neighbours – the sisters share their vegetables, and the local Squamish give them gifts of fish – the relationship had to develop.

The sisters invited the local elders to have dinner with them early on. The conversation took some time to get started, but Rolf recalled that “by the time we got to the pie, things had relaxed and we began sharing stories,” she said. What was expected to be a short lunch stretched across the whole afternoon.

“We want to be authentic friends; to learn from them. They honoured us by coming,” Rolf said.

Sister Claire with water tank. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

The pipe route on on the Talus Slope. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

Mixing concrete by hand. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

Guiding the water tank on the tram line. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

Postulant Mariel cuts the ribbon. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

Singing hymns at the blessing ceremony. (Queen of Peace Monastery photos – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)