The ecological justice work of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary at West Lake landfill — and beyond | St. Louis Public Radio

The ecological justice work of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary at West Lake landfill — and beyond

Dec 22, 2015

You may have heard of the local group of nuns who go to Bridgeton to pray for and protest over the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills, which have been the subject of much controversy in recent years. What you may not know is that movement is part of a greater spiritual calling for the Franciscan Sisters of Mary (FSM) to do ecological justice work — and how close-to-home the landfill saga is for the sisters.

Related: Confused about Bridgeton, West Lake landfills? Here's what you should know

This radiation warning sign is one of many posted on the chain link fence surrounding part of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo.
Credit File photo | Sarah Skiold-Hanlin | St. Louis Public Radio

  In fact, the landfills are less than two miles from the group’s living quarters and administrative offices. After moving to the area in 2012 from the convent at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights, the order started to become active not only at the landfills but also at town hall meetings, contacting local officials and adopting environmental investing and philanthropic policies.

FSM and the Catholic Church’s focus on environmentalism, ignited by Pope Francis’ calls to address climate change with the groundbreaking 42,000 word encyclical, has not always been so pronounced.

“We as Franciscans have always been involved with the environment as we follow St. Francis’ model,” said Sister Susan Scholl, president of the group. “Even for us, we’ve been in healthcare, it has only been in the last four to five years that we’ve turned our focus to the environmental issues.”

Scholl is referring to the sisters’ involvement as founders of SSM Health in St. Louis.

“When we moved our sisters from our convent behind St. Mary’s, our offices also moved to Bridgeton,” Scholl said. “All of us were in the same area as the landfill, which was somewhat of a surprise to us. The proximity to it was our first awakening to it.”

On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air” Scholl and Gale Thackrey, the group’s ecological justice coordinator, joined the show to talk about the work they do to better the environment and how it ties in with the Catholic Church’s environmental mandate as a whole. 

In fact, the landfills are less than two miles from where the group’s living quarters and administrative offices sit. After moving to the area in 2011 from Richmond Heights, the order started to become active not only at the landfill sites but also at town hall meetings, contacting local officials and adopting environmental investing and philanthropy policies.

On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air” Sister Susan Scholl, the president of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, and Gale Thackrey, the group’s ecological justice coordinator, joined the show to talk about the work they do to better the environment and how it ties in with Pope Francis’ calls to address climate change and the Catholic Church’s environmental mandate as a whole.

A mission to care for the environment

“The sisters have a mission that is ‘compassionate care of the planet,’” said Thackrey, who recently returned from Paris, where she attended the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference to network. “Through that, I look for areas where there may be an injustice, areas where we can do better. When I heard about the West Lake Landfill issue through the Missouri Coalition for the Environment … I was surprised to find out all this was happening in the St. Louis area.”

Gale Thackrey
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Thackrey, and later the sisters themselves, met with the coalition as well as “Just Moms STL,” a group of moms in the Bridgeton area advocating for environmental and health justice for those living around the landfills.

They found that, most of all, people outside of Bridgeton just didn’t know about the issue. That’s when the sisters started attending community meetings, visiting classrooms, meeting with legislators with company executives, and also exerting a physical presence at the landfills through prayer vigils.

Bringing awareness through action

Nowadays, you can find the sisters holding a prayer vigil once every other week across from the site of the landfills — something Thackrey invites all faith communities to participate in. There are only 74 sisters who are part of the order today, and they are aging. “There’s very little to do on a daily basis, physically,” said Scholl. “We can lend our presence and our financial support and the wisdom of our years.”

“Our presence hopefully brings some notoriety to it,” Scholl continued. 

Sister Susan Scholl.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Thackrey said the group is making some strides politically and counts the legislation recently introduced in November in theU.S. Senate (sponsored by Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt) and House (sponsored by Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner) as signs of success that their pleas are being heard. Those bills call for the Secretary of the Army, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to take over the remediation efforts at West Lake Landfill from Republic Services.

“Their ecological justice mission is to improve our environment, to have a response to things that may negate a healthy environment,” said Thackrey, calling the bills a tremendous success. “The sisters … realize health and environment are very closely related. From that aspect, we continue to improve our environment, therefore improving health.”

Bringing change through investment

Aside from protest, prayer and legislative action, the sisters are pursuing ecological justice in another, stealthier way: through their finances they invested over the years from their congregation.

“We are an aging congregation — we can’t be out there doing these things, but we can support those who are,” said Scholl.  “We can use the resources we have to a better advantage. We took a chunk of the money we had invested in Wall Street type things and moved it to mission investment. That means we can use these resources while we still earn a return for doing sustainable agriculture, saving the wetlands, investing in clean energy.”

"The truth of it is that we single-handedly can't have an impact, but it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

The other portion of money that the sisters took out is going to philanthropy.

“The truth of it is that we single-handedly can’t have an impact, but it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” said Scholl. “We do what we can do. It is very inspiring to see all the groups, both where our mission investments are but groups we do philanthropy with, to see how inspired these young  people are and the kind of programs that they put together to save the rainforest, to use clean energy, sustainable agriculture.”

Thackrey said she met with the beneficiaries of some of their investments at the Paris climate conference and was excited to see the impact such investing had on the groups. Likewise, she met with indigenous groups from “where the frontlines are burning,” and realized how much more help they need. She came away from the conference feeling optimistic, particularly given the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge and the involvement of mayors from urban areas all over the globe.

Scholl believes that the Pope’s recent statements on climate change are also cause for optimism about the movement on climate change as a whole — globally and here at home.

“I think he has done a great service for the whole global environment because people are impacted by this,” Scholl said. “I’m very impressed with Pope Francis that he was able to step out there. He does get criticism because he is picking into little things—but those are things people can do every day. He begins to tie it to spirituality. This is our common home. There is a requirement for all of us to take care of it. Frankly, personally, everything this man writes just bowls me over. I think he is really excellent.”

“I think the Holy Spirit put him in place and I trust her judgment,” she continued. 

Has the Pope influenced your views on climate change? Email talk@stlpublicradio.org or tweet us at @STLonAir.

Some responses, via email, so far:

No, the Holy Father hasn't changed my mind, because I already believe, and with reading Earth In The Balance and An Inconvenient Truth, from former Vice-President Al Gore, I've alway believe that our activities have affected the Earth's climate.  We are continuing to contribute to the changes in weather, and overall climate, and with each passing year, I predict, that the extreme weather we're having will get worse.  It doesn't take Nostradamus to see that with the violent storms we see in Spring and Summer, the warmer weather we're having now, and the affects around the world that climate change is not, as some would say, a "a Liberal myth".  I applaud his Holiness for his stance, and as a Catholic, I hope we'd learn to reverse (as much as we can) the damage we're doing to the world, before it's too late [lest we abuse the world God gave us]. -- Michael Chandla

This World is gifted with a highly respected man in the way of Pope Francis.  This doesn't happen often enough.  His "Laudato Si" is a testament to our culture.   He is directing us to "Care for our common home."  Hard to believe the conservative attitude that there is no issue with the condition of our Home.  Revolutionaries historically may not live long lives...pray this is not true of Francis.   We need him, his love for all things living is a beacon for us to emulate.   The Franciscan Sisters are certainly among those carrying his banner and acting on it. —Kate Shaw

No, the Pope endorsed climate change as a moral, as well as an existential, issue. Something I already believe is true.  Since morality is rarely ever discussed in this world of political and economic tussling, he elevated this life threatening reality to a new plain. --Barbara Anderson

I am influenced insofar I am affirmed. Granted, this pope has some limited scientific background. For these issues my views on global warming were formed years ago by scientific evidence. It is important and good that he affirms the need for action to address climate change. His is a voice that expresses a need for action in many places that have been ignored for far too long. --Peter Gounis

No the Pope has not influenced my opinion on climate change. I believe climate change is real and so does the Pope. --Rosemary Bagin

I love this Pope but his opinion on climate change hasn’t moved me in any way. I’ve felt this has been happening and was quashed in the US for many years now, mostly due to the corporations that make money off fossil fuels.  I’m glad he’s been able to voice his opinion on such a large stage.

What I am most amazed by though, is the negative reaction to him even having an opinion on climate change. He’s one man, with no legislative power, no authority to impose or require any action- just an opinion and a suggestion.  And that that opinion could ignite such backlash (mostly in the US) kind of gives me a glimpse into what it must have been like when Christ spoke.  I never understood how someone’s ideas of goodness and loving and caring could provoke and bristle people.  Seeing this in a modern day setting put the crucifixion in a brighter light for me. -- Susan Gioia

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.