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Jan 05, 2009 04:40PM

Environmental mission: Quad-Cities sisters take humility to heart

By Nicole Harris
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Sisters from the Congregation of the Humility of Mary gather on the first floor of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary facility on Central Park in Davenport.
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For two years, the Sisters of Humility have shed light on environment issues for attendees at their annual QC Earth Charter Summit.

The 200-plus members of The Congregation of the Humility of Mary have taken to heart their name, which comes from the Latin word "humus," meaning "earth." They have invited community members to join together once a year to focus on the principles of the Earth Charter.

In 2000 the Earth Charter Commission, with input from thousands of individuals and organizations around the world, developed the charter, which includes a global commitment to justice, sustainability and peace, and moves to motivate people to take action on those values.

"Earth Charter Summit was our effort to educate people, make them aware of what's going on and lead them to action," says Sister Cathleen Real, who served as chair for the first Quad-Cities summit.

Sister Real says that the teachings of the Earth Charter, including respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice and non-violence and peace are core beliefs of the congregation.

"And our community had circulated this document several years ago because so many of those -- all of those -- elements are important to us," she says.

Sister Robert Brich had the vision of staring the QC Earth Charter Summit after returning from a religious women's leadership conference that endorsed the charter and called the women to action.

When Sister Brich's four-year term as congregation president began in 2004, she took the theme "Tending the Garden" and formed a group to plan the local summit.

The first summit was held in 2007, with 200 to 250 congregation members, students and other people interested in environmental issues attending at the Putnam Museum in Davenport. The 2008 summit moved to the RiverCenter, also in Davenport, to accommodate an even larger crowd.

"They were looking for a way they could better care for the Earth herself," Sister Brich says. "And they had also been needing some affirmation for what they were doing to continue doing it and that it was worthwhile."

As the summit continues to grow, it may be time for others to have a turn leading it.

"It's a lot of work, and we've done it for two years and have enjoyed doing it. Definitely we need to broaden and give other people an opportunity this year and have other people working with us," Sister Brich says.

As they reach out to other community organizations, the Sisters of Humility's focus remains deeply rooted in environmentalism and social justice.

Of all the issues that fall under the Earth Charter and the congregation's mission, Sister Real says that global warming is one of the closest to her heart. She missed the 2008 summit because she was one of 150 faith leaders across the nation selected to train with former vice president Al Gore and his Climate Change Project in Nashville, Tenn.

Although solving environmental problems can seem insurmountable at times, the Sisters of Humility teach and practice small changes to address them. They recycle, compost, use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, turn off appliances when not in use and use less fuel for driving -- all of which can all make a huge difference.

"I live in an apartment so I don't have some of the issues, but I've stopped using a dryer, for example, because that's a big user of electricity," Sister Real says. "And of course the big thing that's really hard to address is driving."

She said it's also important to remind people that they do not have to sacrifice everything.

"We still would be able to live a very full life. In fact a lot of people say once you simplify and reduce some of the things you use, you can be happier -- and your focus isn't on bigger and richer."

Some of the congregation's other environmentally conscious endeavors in Davenport include include growing a downtown community garden, restoring Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat in northwest Davenport with native plants, and greening the grounds of its building.

The sisters also help fund a project that builds wells in Tanzania. They also took over operations for the former John Lewis Community Services shelter and coffee shop to provide for the homeless.

For more information about The Congregation of the Humility of Mary, visit chmiowa.org.

For more about the Earth Charter Summit, visitqcearthcharter.org.

Nicole Harris is a reporter for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus newspapers.

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