Patron saint of scavenging: Sr. Paula Gonzalez

by Sharon Abercrombie

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For Charity Sr. Paula Gonzalez, 78, recycling is a spiritual practice. She views yard and garage sales as the compost bins for all of the stuff produced by industrial society -- sofas, toasters, old TVs and end tables which all too often end up in landfills.

This retired biology professor just might be the patron saint of scavenging.

After all, how many other people raise $6,000 every August from an annual garage sale, staffed by a host of volunteers? How many other environmentalists have racked up over 2800 workshops and speaking engagements on ways to create sustainable restoration practices to counter the destructive effects of our global, profit-driven. materialistic economy?

Sr. Paula has been heavily into her spiritual practice for over 25 years, ever since she decided to turn part of an old chicken barn on the Sisters of Charity motherhouse property in Cincinnati into an earth-friendly passive solar house for herself and another sister. Every Saturday for three years from 1982 to 1985, she and a large group of mostly rookie building volunteers assembled to renovate the old structure using recycled materials. Sr. Paula financed the project for Casa del Sol, “House of the Sun” through garage sales.

Ten years later, she opened the doors of EarthConnection, a 21st century solar-heated, energy efficient building that has become the headquarters for programs, tours and internships devoted to teaching Christian, interfaith and educational communities how to restore the balance within Earth’s ecosystems. It brings in morals and spirituality as the linchpins to touch hearts in addition to engaging brains. She was able to finance the building through – you guessed it – those sales of hers.

When this writer caught up with her last week, Sr. Paula was preparing for the next one.

She had rushed breathlessly inside for her phone appointment after donating a “bunch of old leftover materials” from her Casa del Sol project to Habitat for Humanity to make room for new donations. They will begin pouring in soon.

Sr. Paula now funnels sales proceeds into different charities. This year’s will go to purchase recycled building materials for the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit organization launched in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina’s tore New Orleans neighborhoods apart. Two volunteers who went to help started the project.

Today there are over 17,000 volunteers from churches, community groups and schools who have gone to New Orleans to rebuild and restore the homes of senior citizens, disabled people and families with young children who were living in this middle class working community before the Hurricane. So far, over 250 families have seen their homes renovated by the group.

In 2009 , two nuns– Ursuline Sr. Regina Marie Fronmuller and Dominican Sr. Mary Keefe-- began recruiting sisters from across the United States to help in the volunteer project they dubbed “Nuns Build.” Last November Sr. Paula went to New Orleans with six of her religious colleagues from Cincinnati to hang dry wall, repair roofs and install insulation.

Sr. Paula considers the St. Bernard Project as another great opportunity for humans to join with the presiding members of Nature’s scavenging team – those critters, fungi, microbes and the like which turn the Earth’s natural wastes back into life giving materials to sustain the Planet.

This energetic sister tootles around the Motherhouse campus -- from Casa Del Sol and her garden, to Earthconnection and back --on “Sunny,” a bright yellow golf cart which two Mt. St. Joseph mechanical engineering students turned into a solar powered vehicle as a class project five years ago.

“Sunny” is a test case of how one can taking one of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) – in this case – fire – the sun – and putting it to earth-friendly use, she explained.

“Why can’t people understand that we don’t need oil? Our fossil fuel extractive economy is destroying the planet,“ she said. But “CEOs don’t yet have the mentality to be able to see how alternative energy is capable of creating Earth-friendly jobs for people.” A friend of hers in a nearby Ohio town, for example, started a solar panel company a few years ago and “today he has 26 employees.”

Sr. Paula traces part of her passion for ecology to the first Earth Day, when she was inspired by the outpouring of enthusiasm she saw across the United States. A few years later, when controversy erupted over a new proposed nuclear power plant, the biology professor realized that protesting by itself cannot solve energy problems. Creating life-sustaining alternatives needed to be a part of the scenario as well.

The rest of her Gaia involvement comes from childhood experiences. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she spent hours of contentment during the summer helping her dad in his vegetable garden.

“He would tell me, “The Earth is sacred.” Young Paula saw that it was. At an early age her soul was touched by the God she refers to as “The Great Living One.”

Sr. Paula Gonzalez entered the Sisters of Charity in 1954. She taught high school for five years before completing her masters and doctorate in biology at the Catholic University in Washington DC. She taught full time at Mt. St. Joseph in Cincinnati from 1965-1975 before becoming involved in the environmental movement.

NCR's Eco Catholic Blog

Eco Catholic is an exploration of the green Catholic imagination and ecological spirituality. Contributors include Rich Heffern, NCR staff writer, columnist and author, and Sharon Abercrombie, a journalist who has covered the environment, spirituality, women’s issues, animal rights and social justice for many newspapers.

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