A nun pulls up to a farmstand in an electric, six-passenger golf cart. This is not the start of a joke, but an everyday occurrence on the Sisters of St. Joseph campus in Brentwood.
It certainly wasn’t always. Back in 2015, the nun who now holds the keys to that aforementioned golf cart, Sister Karen Burke, found herself busier than ever. A sister in the congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, as well as a tenured professor at Western Connecticut State University with a doctoral degree in Instructional Leadership, S. Karen was thriving professionally, with her work in education opening up opportunities for her to travel all around the world.
“Beautiful things were happening in my life,” says S. Karen. “I was teaching at various universities, traveling all over the place and having all of these great experiences, but my passion was shifting, and I was becoming more and more interested in, and passionate about, the earth.”
Karen was not the only one. There are, in total, 325 sisters of St. Joseph between the congregation’s main campus in Brentwood, and smaller satellite sites in Queens and Puerto Rico, and they all share a commitment to continuing what they see as the true mission of Jesus Christ: to, in their own words, “promote justice, live lives of non-violence and respond to the needs of our time.” So it was not surprising, but still historic, when the sisters congregated in 2015 and made the pivotal decision to affirm a Land Ethic Statement—a document that reads as equal parts pledge and plan, outlining their intentions to fulfill the full scope of their charism, to love God and neighbor without distinction, by being the most conscientious and actively affirming stewards of the sacred land in their care.
They certainly had a lot of land to care for. The Sisters of St. Joseph campus in Brentwood is 212 acres in all, a sprawling space as breathtakingly beautiful as it is altogether unlikely. Brentwood is one of the most densely populated and developed communities on Long Island; enter the sisters’ campus and it feels as though you’ve stumbled upon an entirely different world—a quiet oasis that recalls both a different age and continent. At the heart of it stands the motherhouse, home to over 100 sisters and, currently, refugee families from Ukraine and Afghanistan; the sisters’ Sacred Heart Chapel; Eastern Suffolk BOCES and other educational spaces, such as a universal pre-school; and the Maria Regina Residence, a highly esteemed nursing home.
“The Land Ethic Statement was a major turning point for us,” says S. Karen. “I thought I had been busy before, but over time everything shifted into overdrive. I resigned from my teaching position and began working as our congregation’s Coordinator of Land Initiatives full-time. But still, with my background, I thought, ‘Okay, this is great. Our Land Ethic Statement looks wonderful on paper. Now what are we actually going to do with it?’ I knew from teaching in a leadership program for educators that the lesson was always: do the research, get the right people at the table, and get to work. So I knew we had done the research; now we just needed to find the right people.”
Enter the Peconic Land Trust. Founded in 1983 by John v.H. Halsey and a small group of local residents, the Peconic Land Trust is our region’s staunchest and most skillful protector of local land, an organization fluent in every language necessary for conservation in an area notoriously challenging to conserve: bureaucratic, agricultural, ecological and financial. Since its founding, the Trust has protected over 13,000 acres of land and is still, nearly 40 years later, working tirelessly to protect even more for future generations.
“And thanks to David Okron at the Long Island Community Foundation, who put us in touch, the Peconic Land Trust is where we found those right people,” says S. Karen. “We had the passion, we had the energy, but Kim [Quarty, the Peconic Land Trust’s Director of Conservation Planning] and Dan [Heston, the Trust’s Director of Agricultural Programs] brought the expertise.”
They also brought a steadying, shepherding hand when the sisters needed it most. Because when Kim and Dan first arrived on the sisters’ campus, they found a congregation with plans not unlike some of their campus’s natural spaces: overly conceived in some areas, like their enormous swaths of lawn, which, while pretty, were neither productive nor sustainable, and in need of some shaping in others.
“I grew up Presbyterian and didn’t have a lot of experience with Catholic Nuns growing up,” says Dan. “What I found was they were so easy to work with and the nicest people in the world. And very funny! Kim and I hit it off with them big time right from the start . . . and they had great ideas and a real commitment to farming and the environment for the land they manage.”
Chief among the sisters’ ideas was this: they wanted to erect a solar farm right behind their motherhouse. Next, they wanted to put an easement on all 212 acres of their property. Of course, the sisters had all the right impulses. A solar array would definitely make the campus more efficient, just as an easement would effectively protect the land from development in the future—but Kim and Dan knew from experience that there was a better, more targeted way to achieve the same goals.
“Kim, Dan and their colleagues spent days and days just analyzing the campus and one of the first things they said to us was, ‘You know, you have some of the best agricultural soil on Long Island—and you’re growing a lawn,’” laughs S. Karen. “We knew we could do better. Our campus was originally farmland, but it hadn’t been farmed in fifty or sixty years. The Peconic Land Trust promised they could help us change that.”
And they did. Together with the sisters, Kim and Dan worked to create ‘concept plans’ for the campus that touched on everything from wastewater management to historical preservation and more.
“The first thing we did was help the sisters re-site their solar array,” says Kim. “They were originally going to site it on some of their best farmland, so we helped them re-site it to a more suitable part of the property, somewhere out of the way and less suitable for agriculture.”
Today, now placed correctly, the sisters’ solar array consists of 3,192 solar panels and provides electricity for about 70-percent of their campus.
Next, once the solar was settled, Kim and Dan began to facilitate the process of the sisters’ preserving their land.
“The average age among the sisters is around 80, so even though their land hadn’t been in agricultural production for decades, many of them remembered when it had,” says Dan. “So we found the sisters very excited to restore the land back to its original use and we knew just how to do it.”
Of the campus’s 212 acres, 103 acres were still undeveloped when Kim and Dan first arrived in Brentwood. Together with their colleagues at the Peconic Land Trust, Kim and Dan worked diligently, testing soil from different areas all over campus, to determine the location of the best, most fertile land. Then, they helped the sisters to sell the development rights to that land—28 acres in all—to Suffolk County, ensuring that the land could never be developed, even if the sisters one day no longer owned it.
In order to sell the development rights to Suffolk County, however, they first needed to get the land back into agricultural production. The first step in that process, then, was finding farmers to farm the land. Luckily, there was no shortage of interest from potential farmers, and the sisters and Peconic Land Trust were soon able to lease the land to three different agricultural operations. From there came the work of installing all the necessary infrastructure to ensure agricultural success—wells, irrigation systems, “all the boring stuff that nobody really likes to talk about,” says Dan.
That first year, in 2016, the sisters leased farmland to three organic farmers, including Teddy Bolkas, the brains-and-brawn behind Thera Farms. Today, six years later, that number has doubled, and the Sisters of St. Joseph campus is currently home to eight independent farms, all of which are now managed by Bolkas himself, to whom the Peconic Land Trust recently passed over the reins: Thera Farms, Island Harvest Food Bank, Red Fox Farm, The Napolitano Family Farm, The Long Island Native Plant Initiative, Long Island Produce, S.T.R.O.N.G Youth and DSA Mutual Change.
And even still, all these years and successes later, the partnership between the sisters and the Peconic Land Trust continues to bear fruit. Together with Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, a Melville-based environmental planning company, the Trust transformed the once-wasted space of the campus’s expansive lawn into a 3-acre native meadow that buzzes with pollinators, attracts and sustains wildlife, and explodes with color each July. Elsewhere on campus, privet hedges have been replaced with rows of beautiful, flowering native plants, while rain gardens planted beside once-flood-prone roads have been collecting water as efficiently as wells. With the Trust’s guidance, the sisters even applied for and received a place for the campus on the National Historic Register.
“And there’s still so much more to do,” says S. Karen. “We’re still working with the Peconic Land Trust on a host of projects, from preserving 43 acres of woodlands to preserving another 35 acres of meadow. We are so proud of what we’ve accomplished, but still so excited and energized for what’s still to come.”
It is easy to understand the sisters’ pride. The Sisters of St. Joseph campus is an agrarian, ecological and social justice dream. Its rich farmlands produce beautiful, bountiful harvests; its forests and native meadows attract and protect wildlife and precious pollinators; and then there’s the simple fact of its location, that its farmers are producing food in a place without farms, in a community where residents often don’t have the means to travel out to the East End to find them, in a ‘food desert’ where so many local families are food insecure. Just inside campus gates, Thera Farms accepts checks from both WIC (the Women, Infants and Children Program) and CSFP (the Commodity Supplemental Food Program) at its farmstand.
“In so many ways, the sisters’ mission is parallel with our own,” says Kim. “They’re very concerned about the environment and being sustainable and preserving things for the future. I think this is something a lot of religious orders across the country are turning their attention to. They are looking at their properties and trying to preserve them for future generations.. So yes, there are many different orders looking to protect their land to ensure it will remain for the community.”
“That’s exactly right,” says S. Karen, speaking from behind the wheel of the sisters’ new ride: that electric, six-passenger golf cart with the sisters’ raison d’être—’Uniting all in God’s love—emblazoned on its sides. “We believe this land is a gift from God and so we hold it in sacred trust for future generations. That’s why we’re doing this. And there’s scientific reasons, as well, right? But the day in and day out motivation, at least for us, is just pure reverence for creation. And I believe this is something all faith communities, cultural communities, and even nonprofit organizations like the Peconic Land Trust can really get behind. I mean, just look at us here in Brentwood.”
Sisters of St. Joseph is located at 1725 Brentwood Road in Brentwood, New York. The Thera Farms farmstand, located just inside its gates, is open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
For more on the Peconic Land Trust, please visit their website at peconiclandtrust.org.