Religious congregations choose conservation over profit

By Brian Roewe and Chris Herlinger

On a morning in July, after a night of heavy rains in New York's Hudson Valley, a path cutting through 42 acres of wetland and woodland owned by the Maryknoll Sisters was a verdant green.

Leaves glistened, and spots of mud dotted the path.

Sr. Doreen Longres, carrying a weeding hoe, paused and contemplated the significance of the acreage, which constitutes about two-thirds of the congregation’s 62-acre center outside Ossining, New York.

"This land has been so important to us," Longres said. "The land contains connectedness."

That connectedness extends beyond the sisters' own relationship to the property that, for more than a century, has served as the spiritual and working center for a congregation with a mission in 18 countries around the world.

That connectedness extends to the Earth itself — a belief grounded in an ethic of protection and care.

"We believe that creation is a primary source of revelation of the Divine Presence. Earth is sacred, and the extinction of life forms and ecosystems through overuse and irresponsible exploitation is a destruction of manifestations of the Divine Presence," the sisters said in a 2006 land ethic statement.

With that as a foundation, the Maryknoll Sisters made their belief even more concrete. Almost a decade ago, in 2012, the congregation entered into a land preservation agreement with a local group, the Westchester Land Trust, setting aside 42 acres as protected land — "forever wild" — in perpetuity through a conservation easement.

The easement means that the sisters have agreed that the land will not be developed. In turn, the local land trust safeguards the land through annual visits.

The Catholic Church is one of the world's largest nongovernmental landholders, and as religious communities age and face higher health care costs for their members, their real estate is an important asset that could provide significant revenue if sold for development. Nevertheless, many religious congregations are choosing to conserve some of their land permanently, to safeguard water sources, protect biodiversity, and buffer against both urban sprawl and climate change, and to express their commitment to caring for creation.

When the Maryknoll Sisters decided to establish the conservation easement, Sr. Janice McLaughlin, then president of the congregation, called the agreement "a sacred trust," while Candace Schafer, the director of the land trust, noted that "conservation is an act of faith" and said the agreement memorializes "forever the love and respect you have for the land that supports your community."

It's a peaceful place... but it's also prime property in the middle of the city, and it would be valuable real estate. That isn't what we want to have happen with it."
Franciscan Sr. Ramona Miller

I know forever is a very long time, but that's kind of what we're saying in this easement, is it will be forever. At least, it's our best shot at forever."
Mercy Sr. Catherine Kuper

Earth is sacred, and the extinction of life forms and ecosystems through overuse and irresponsible exploitation is a destruction of manifestations of the Divine Presence."
Maryknoll Sisters land ethic statement

Communities cultivate care for creation

The Maryknoll easement was among the first protections of congregational lands against development, but it was not the only one. At least three other congregations in the Hudson Valley have similar agreements with conservation or government groups. And other congregations there and elsewhere in the country have initiated projects to protect land, including the development of environmentally friendly community farms and gardens.

In the Midwest alone, congregations of Franciscans, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph and more have moved to preserve the land that has cultivated decades, and sometimes more than a century, of ministry and spirituality. They're part of a wider conservation movement across the country as religious communities ponder how best to manage the land and maintain it in its natural state — for the sisters, as God created it — long after they're gone.

More than 56 million acres in the U.S. have been conserved through land trusts, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a national conservation nonprofit organization. As a whole, the country comprises 2.27 billion acres, of which roughly 28% is owned by the federal government.

While there are differences in approach and focus, the Catholic congregations promoting conservation share the view that the land itself is sacred and its value extends beyond what one can do or build upon it.

"We have such a utilitarian kind of mindset — especially, I think, as Americans — that if something can be used for something, it ought to be," said Franciscan Sr. Charlotte Hesby, who worked to establish an easement at the Assisi Heights motherhouse in Rochester, Minnesota. "A lake is only valuable if you can fish in it, if you can use it for recreation. If a rare species is there, then it's OK to preserve it. But otherwise we don't see it as having a value in and of itself."

1Rochester, Minnesota

Franciscan Sisters
Area protected: 72 acres of 116 total
Form of protection: Conservation easement


2La Crosse, Wisconsin

Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
Area protected: 200 acres, for different uses
Form of protection: Collaborative environmental sustainability project


3 Dubuque, Iowa

Franciscan Sisters
Area protected: 68 acres of 130 total
Form of protection: Conservation easement


Mississippi Valley


To protect the land for its natural beauty and its spiritual significance, and as a symbol of conservation in the growing Rochester area.
The Sisters of St. Francis put 72 of their 116 acres into a conservation easement and created their own foundation to oversee the easement, rather than work through a land trust, giving them added certainty that their wishes would be honored forever.
It is important for the congregation to understand its present needs and ask whether it is in a position where it can preserve its land, or whether there might be another purpose or need for it.


The connection the sisters feel to the land, as Franciscans, is an important value that they seek to preserve and to pass on to future generations.
Although the sisters put land around their spirituality center in Iowa into a conservation easement, they have not reached consensus on an easement in Wisconsin. They have set the land aside in perpetuity for educational activities related to sustainability, including community gardens and their own food production.
The congregation should determine whether one of its members is knowledgeable about conservation or ecology. If not, the community should find good consultants and reach out to other congregations that have gone through the easement process or other land-use planning.


To preserve prairieland and to leave their land as a legacy for future generations.
After discussions that began in 2017, in May 2019 the community placed 68 acres of their 130-acre property — 55 acres of prairie and 13 of woodland — into a conservation easement with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
Contact county or state conservation or conservancy organizations to talk about local options for land preservation.

Conservation trusts can be ‘our best shot at forever’

The desire to conserve the land is driven by the congregation's charism. A deep dedication to caring for creation is embedded in countless congregations of women religious. This often predates by decades the teachings of Pope Francis, who has elevated environmental concerns within the church and on the world stage, most notably through his 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

But there are other motivations, too.

Discussions about land preservation have regularly emerged during long-range planning by congregations, who recognize that their numbers are diminishing and there may come a time when the community no longer exists.

Sometimes a single sister has led land preservation efforts, and when she is no longer able to do so, turning part of the property over to a land trust allows conservation to continue. That was the case with Bow-in-the-Clouds Natural Area, now Bow-in-the-Clouds Preserve, which the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Michigan, donated to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy more than a decade ago.

Often the sisters want to avoid having land they see as sacred become the next development project.From their hilltop Assisi Heights motherhouse, the Sisters of St. Francis have watched the city of Rochester creep closer and closer to their 116-acre property.

"It's a peaceful place … but it's also prime property in the middle of the city, and it would be valuable real estate. That isn't what we want to have happen with it," Sr. Ramona Miller, president and congregational minister of the Rochester Franciscans, said of their land.

"So the conserving of land and not just turning all land over to apartment buildings or some other valuable service here is a statement in itself about protecting land," she said.

That mindset has led many congregations to consider placing land in easements.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement that permanently limits how land can be — and, just as importantly, how it cannot be — used. Those terms are set by the landowner who initiates the easement and must be followed by any future owner of the property. Importantly, an easement does not preclude the ability to sell the land.

In many states, land trusts and conservancies provide resources to help landowners protect their land. They also conduct annual reviews to ensure the land is used according to the terms of the easement.

In Iowa, both the Franciscan Sisters of Dubuque and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have entered into agreements with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. And the Sisters of Mercy established a conservation easement with the Nebraska Land Trust for 25 acres of wooded land and a small pond just west of Omaha along the Platte River.

When the Sisters of Mercy leadership team approved the easement, the decision assured Sr. Catherine Kuper, who was long involved in environmental efforts with the land, that all forms of life there would continue to have a habitat.

"I know forever is a very long time, but that's kind of what we're saying in this easement, is it will be forever," she said.

"At least, it's our best shot at forever."

1Ossining, New York

Maryknoll Sisters
Area protected: 42 acres of 67 total
Form of protection: Conservation easement


2Ossining, New York

Dominican Sisters of Hope
Area protected: 34 acres of 61 total
Form of protection: Conservation easement


3Upper Nyack, New York

Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine
Area protected: 30 acres of 40 total
Form of protection: Sold to a land trust, which donated land to state to be added to parks


4Hudson Valley, New York

Religious Organizations Along the River


Hudson Valley

Maryknoll Sisters

To conserve a section of the property that is part of a wetland, to avoid any future possibility that it could be destroyed and developed. The decision was made not only for environmental reasons, but for its witness value.
The Maryknoll Sisters put 42 of their 67 acres into a conservation easement with the Westchester Land Trust.
• Commit to land-use decisions as a process.
• Ensure that all community members are educated about the options and included in discussions and decision making.
• Seek support of leadership who see the importance of the issue and encourage investigation.
• Network with like-minded groups. Do research and connect with local groups working on land-use issues.
• Learn the laws in your state about conservation options.
• Investigate the land organizations. Different land trusts or land organizations have different goals. Learn about them and choose one aligned with the congregation's values.

Dominican Sisters of Hope, Mariandale

The sisters sought to preserve the land from development, in keeping with their values.
Of the total 61-acre property, 34 acres were put into a conservation easement with the Westchester Land Trust.
Communities contemplating a similar effort should research the options and reach consensus, and should not be afraid to dream big.

Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine, Marydell

To avoid future development that could pose a risk of pollution to the Hudson River and eliminate habitat of wildlife roaming freely in neighboring Nyack Beach State Park.
The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land worked with New York state agencies and other governmental and nongovernmental entities to purchase 30 acres from the congregation. The trust then donated them to the state of New York for inclusion in two neighboring state parks. The remaining 10 acres can be added in the future.
Know your property boundaries and your community's past history of efforts to sell or preserve their property. Get expert advice, learn about easement policies and prepare to do a lot of planning. And be aware of the good you are doing.

Decision requires education and pondering alternatives

That permanence, though, has also led some congregations to give pause to the idea of easements.

While the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration established an easement at their Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Iowa, they have not made the move with the 200 acres surrounding their St. Joseph Villa retirement home outside La Crosse, Wisconsin. (The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are major funders of EarthBeat, and established the Laudato Si' Fund to help endow NCR's coverage of the climate crisis.)

Some sisters worry that an easement would restrict options for younger sisters, who might want to be able to sell the land in the future for funds to support themselves. Another concern has been whether an easement would limit what the sisters themselves can do with the land.

For now, the congregation has decided to set aside 92 acres in perpetuity as part of a collaborative sustainability education project where people in the local community can apply for small parcels of land to grow their own food.

"I just believe this whole thing of when things are ready to happen, they will happen," said Sr. Sharon Berger, a member of the congregation's land review committee. "And one of the things is, we have tried really hard not to push without having support from the sisters. Otherwise, it doesn't work. It just doesn't work."

Education has been key for moving conservation easements from the idea stage to completion, say sisters whose congregations have completed the process. Those efforts cover not only what an easement is, but how it works, who enforces it and the costs it entails. Some land trusts request or require a donation, sometimes around $10,000-20,000, to fund oversight. Landowners may also be responsible for other maintenance costs.

Even when members of a congregation share the value of caring for creation, decisions about land are rarely made quickly. More often, they have emerged from years of reflection and discussion among the sisters.

A representative of the Nebraska Land Trust told Kuper of the Sisters of Mercy that it takes about seven years for the idea to become a reality, not just because of the process, but because it takes time to get everyone on board. As it turned out, it was closer to a decade for them.

For others, the process has evolved in just a couple years. For some congregations, documents like a land ethic or conservation statement developed years earlier proved key in moving forward when an easement was later proposed.

In the Hudson Valley, the conservation easements have emerged from religious congregations' longstanding involvement in environmental activism. Various communities joined together to form a coalition called Religious Organizations Along the River, or ROAR, founded in 1996. The members have been involved in advocacy and educational efforts on issues related to fracking, the expansion of gas pipelines along or under the Hudson River and operation of the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City.

"While each of our congregations are doing things individually as a congregation, the collective voice of ROAR is also a great strong voice," said Sr. Carol De Angelo, director of the Office of Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation for the Sisters of Charity of New York, one of the original ROAR members.

"We're just one little drop in the ocean there, but I think that the faith voice needs to be made," she said. "It is a witness. It is a witness that people of faith, especially Catholics, are concerned about these issues."

Back at Maryknoll, along the woodland path, Longres, who was co-director of the Maryknoll Sisters' environmental office in 2012, paused to take in the peace and tranquility of the forest around her and reflect on her congregation's decision to protect the land.

"It does feel good," said Longres, a missionary in Peru who was at the Maryknoll Center for much of the summer. "We did a good thing."

Recommendations and sample timeline of decision process

Rules about and options for land conservation vary by state and sometimes by county, so there's no single formula. But communities that have made land-use decisions offer some general recommendations.

Sometimes the catalyst is a community decision, but often the idea is nurtured by one or two members of the community. Sisters who have gone through the process recommend getting to know the history and characteristics of the land, developing a land-use vision, and raising awareness and educating members of the congregation. Learn about state and local zoning regulations and find advisers with knowledge of land-use options.

Contact local conservation organizations and land trusts and research their values and how they operate, to ensure that the one chosen aligns with the community's values. One way to do that is to look at lands they have already preserved. Consider the various possible options, which may include sale or donation to a land trust or other conservation organization, creation of an easement or including restrictions in the deed.

Keep the community's future needs in mind when deciding how much of the land, and which parts, to protect, and remember that it can happen in stages. Keep leadership and the wider community updated, and have the community's lawyer review any legal agreement before signing.

The Maryknoll Sisters who protected part of a wetland on their property near Ossining, New York, were one of the first congregations in the Hudson Valley to create a conservation easement. This is a general overview of their process:

  • 1990

    General Assembly of sisters decides to incorporate ecology into congregational life.

  • 1996

    ROAR founded, with Maryknoll Sisters among the original congregations.

  • 2002

    General Assembly endorses Earth Charter.

  • 2003

    Environmental desk (later environmental office) created, operating until 2014.

  • 2004-05

    Environmental resource assessment by consultant results in suggestions regarding land management, recycling, paper use and cleaning supplies.

    Ongoing education of members.

  • 2006

    Congregation approves land ethic that states: "We are called to relearn our place in the universe and be enlightened by a worldview in which land once again is seen as sacred."

  • 2007

    Congregation meets with Westchester Land Trust attorney and begins informal discernment about land conservation. Informal meeting with neighbors.

  • 2008

    ROAR publishes land use handbook used by Maryknoll Sisters and other groups.

    Discernment about land issues continues.

  • 2008-2012

    Discernment continues, with consultation of congregational leadership and treasurer, meetings, reports and updates to members.
    Multiple walks with land trust personnel to determine easement boundaries.
    Tentative boundary marked using GPS plotter.
    Official land survey conducted and legal boundary staked.
    Easement agreement drafted and reviewed by congregation's lawyer.
    Leadership officially approves agreement.

  • 2012

    Public announcement of conservation easement agreement.