Living Simply: Thirty years after its creation, EarthConnection continues to educate, inspire
By Erin Reder
Thirty years ago ground was broken on the construction of EarthConnection (EC), a vision of the late S. Paula Gonzalez, Ph.D., nationally recognized lecturer, author, retreat leader, and widely known as ‘The Solar Nun.’ The building began as a dream following the Chapter of 1990. In writing the SC Vision Statement the Sisters challenged themselves to “live simply in a complex world, committed to the healing of our global home,” and to “risk being prophetic in church and society.” This vision inspired S. Paula to begin thinking about building a hands-on center for learning and reflection about living lightly on God’s Earth. She lived by the call to: “live simply so others might simply live.”
At the time of its conception S. Paula said, “This will be a place where people all over our country can come and learn what they need to know to build solar homes, detach from the utility grid, rehab for efficiency, conserve water, apply state-of-the-art economics and anything else we find out as we proceed with the project!”
EarthConnection, which was completed in 1995, has continued to educate and expand through the years. The building is located near the congregation’s Motherhouse and was built with the help of many experts and volunteers. Diane Armpriest, faculty of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cincinnati, organized a group of architecture students to design the facility. With the help of volunteers, and a great outpouring of donations of new, used and recycled materials, they were able to convert an oversized four-car garage into a 3,900-square-foot meeting and office space building. Features of the facility include an experimental solar heating system, solar electricity, natural lighting, super-insulated walls and windows, floor tiles made of clay and waste glass, a wall made of aluminum cans, and carpeting constructed from recycled plastic bottles.
Today the environmental learning center offers tours, internships, environmental educational programs and webinars, and opportunities for hands-on learning. Some of these opportunities have been put on hold due to the pandemic, but hope to resume in the near future. EC continues to showcase various renewable-energy technologies including daylighting, passive and active solar thermal, grid-tied photovoltaic, and geoexchange energy systems. The systems (uniquely designed by Randy Sizemore, an acquaintance of S. Paula’s) are notable for their unusual “solar-assisted geothermal” configuration, where summer heat is transferred from solar thermal collectors to an insulated bed of earth around the building for use the following winter.
S. Caroljean Willie is the program director at EC and brings her previous work with the United Nations in the area of environmental sustainability to the variety of programs now offered. Programs cover topics on sustainability, ecospirituality, climate change and alternative energies, to name a few. In addition, within recent years EC has begun offering programs for local Girl Scouts troops. Scouts can work on an award, a badge, or an EarthConnection patch.
Located on the grounds is also a vegetable garden tended to by S. Winnie Brubach, facilities coordinator and master gardener, and her faithful group of volunteers. The 21 raised beds of organic vegetables include tomatoes, okra, many varieties of peppers, cabbage, beans, peas, lettuce, and kale. Harvested vegetables are donated to the Good Samaritan Free Health Center of Price Hill. The garden usually yields between 800 to 1,000 pounds of produce each year.
What started with S. Paula 30 years ago continues today through the ministry at EarthConnection. S. Paula knew that education was an important component in promoting sustainable living and care of our Earth. She often spoke of seeing one of the first images of the whole Earth in 1969. The way she described it: “For those of us who experienced this, it was an exciting moment of awe and wonder – but also the call to a new beginning. That day we humans began to become planetary citizens. The most striking realization we had was that everything – human and non-human alike – is connected and interdependent. Thus, whether in natural ecosystems or in human social systems, healthy relationships are the key to a sustainable future – with a fair share for all.”
On this Earth Day let us remember S. Paula’s words and feel called to look at the relationships in our life – to others and to Earth. As global citizens she would encourage us to choose an area of Earth healing, find the group or organization waiting for you and get involved: “Say to yourself, ‘I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something.’ Let’s rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. Together it can be done.”
For more information on the programs and opportunities offered at EarthConnection, please visit the website at www.scearthconnection.org.