Passionist center creates urban wetlands

Kelley Schleg, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Agnes School, 1800 Newburg Road, helped a group of students spread straw on one of the newly-created wetlands located on the campus of the The Passionist Earth and Spirit Center. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Kelley Schleg, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Agnes School, 1800 Newburg Road, helped a group of students spread straw on one of the newly-created wetlands located on the campus of the The Passionist Earth and Spirit Center. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Dozens of students from St. Agnes School scattered bales of straw onto the banks and floor of one of the newly-constructed wetlands found in the wooded area behind the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center on Newburg Road, Aug. 31.

The project to create wetlands — low-lying areas of land that over time will attract moisture and wildlife — is “care for the Earth,” said Passionist Brother John Monzyk. Brother Monzyk is the superior of the Passionist’s Sacred Heart Monastery of which the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center is a ministry.

Brother Monzyk said the project is about “passing good things on to the next generation” and getting past the idea that the earth is a resource to be used up. “You borrow it, you don’t use it up,” said Brother Monzyk during a recent interview.

The project, completed just in time for the Sept. 1 World Day of Prayer for Creation, is part of the Passionists’ charism.

“We spread the word that Jesus suffered and died. It extends that idea to the earth that is suffering too and we need to heal it,” he said. “It is not a change in theology. We’re not worshipping nature. It’s good stewardship for future generations. If the earth suffers, we suffer.”

Kyle Kramer, executive director of the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center, said the construction of wetlands is “at the core” of what the center is about. “We’re trying to transform the relationship between humans and the Earth,” he said. That relationship should be “mutually beneficial,” he added.

Kramer said he sees the wetlands benefiting the community in three primary ways.

Firstly, he said, the wetlands will act like “kidneys” for the watershed. The water that runs into the wetlands will be cleaner when it leaves the wetlands, he said, noting, “Whatever we do ends up in the creek.” Beargrass Creek runs near the wetlands. “We want to make sure we’re stewarding the property well.”

Secondly, the wetlands will promote “much greater diversity of wildlife and plant life” and will help to restore plant and wildlife health.
Thirdly, said Kramer, the wetlands will be educational.

“We want to show students and the organizations we work with that it’s possible to do this healing work right in the middle of the city.”

Projects such as the wetlands are “the kind of work Pope Francis is calling us to do — to engage in stewarding God’s creation,” said Kramer, referencing Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”

The St. Agnes fourth-graders may have gotten the first of many lessons the wetlands can provide, said Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist and wetlands ecologist who headed the construction of the wetlands.

The straw the students spread will slow down the erosion of the soil, he said. The wetlands are like “outdoor science classrooms” equipped for lessons in science and even mathematics, he noted. Children learn and retain more when they have the opportunity for hands-on study, he said.

Another lesson the wetlands hold, said Biebighauser, is that “every habitat fulfills a purpose for humans and wildlife.”

For instance, wetlands control mosquitoes, he noted. Soon salamanders and dragonflies will move into the area and start feeding on mosquitoes, he said. The wetlands require little to no maintenance, he added.

Planning the project took a year and included a study to determine if the area was suitable for wetlands and securing permits from the Metro Sewer District. Constructing the wetlands, however, took a crew working with a bulldozer and an excavator, only three days during the week of Aug. 28.

The public was invited to an open house at the center on Aug. 31.

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