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BioBlitz at Mercy Farm

The 39-acre Mercy Farm in Benson is home to at least 36 moth species, more than two dozen types of trees, a half dozen spore bearer varieties, two score of plants, 42 types of birds, a dozen insects and a dozen animals, eight types of aquatic life and three Sisters of Mercy.
 
It’s easy to count the sisters who live at the eco-spiritual center but difficult to count the other forms of life that call it home.
 
Thanks to a recent “BioBlitz,” the sisters have a better handle on just what is living with them on the religious congregation’s property.
 
The May BioBlitz was a 24-hour period of intense biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species on the farm.
 
According to Sister Betty Secord, program director, the survey was valuable in showing how full of life the land is and how connected each form of life is to others. “The desire came from our sense that we are connected. All of creation is interconnected,” she said.
 
According to the Mercy Farm website, “Spiritual practice invites us to contemplate and engage in the world in an intentional way that is dedicated to developing a more insightful, mature relationship with self and the world – a way that is profoundly meaningful and fulfilling.”
 
During this Year of Creation in Vermont called for by Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, the BioBlitz drew attention to the need to care for all of God’s creation. “If we’re all part of creation, all part of God’s gift of love through nature, when one part of our body hurts, we all hurt,” said Sister Secord, director of the BioBlitz at Mercy Farm. “Everything is a manifestation of God’s love.”
 
But she lamented that much of society has become “consumers” rather than “citizens,” disconnected from creation. “We are raping the Earth for comfort and profit,” she said. “We are not living within our means. We are consuming too fast for the Earth to recoup. We are taking much more than we actually need. Consumerism is a major issue.”
 
So at Mercy Farm, visitors can connect with one another, with nature and with their deepest self. “It’s important that we have places like this in the world where people can get away from everyday life and get that sense of relationship,” Sister Secord said.
 
It’s also a place where, according to the BioBlitz, visitors just might see a clover looper moth, a quaking aspen, a prickly ash, an inky cap, a hairy vetch, an ox-eye daisy or a dog violet.
 
There will also be wild geraniums, robins, crows, June bugs, caterpillars, fox, red maples and crayfish.
 
Forty-two volunteers and 30 participants attended the BioBlitz, recording their findings in categories including trees, basic botany, spore bearers, animal signs, insects, moths, aquatic life and birds. A group of naturalists lead the effort.
 
No recommendations for improvements to the farm’s ecosystem were made. “They seemed to think we have a complete ecosystem here,” Sister Secord said of the experts.
 
She plans to share the information from the BioBlitz with visitors and said it will be important information for future planning for the property.
 
The BioBlitz also included a Master Gardener display, an astronomy talk, a lesson on growing mushrooms, a bat-banding demonstration and a scavenger hunt.
 

Showing, sowing, growing mercy

At Mercy Farm in Benson, the Sisters of Mercy are creating a place where people can experience peace and quiet and a sense of contemplation, reverence and care for the Earth. 

Here the importance of the Earth and its care are emphasized, and visitors are encouraged to find ways they can care for it: organic gardening, recycling, composting, using solar power and reusing, for example.

Here visitors can experience God in creation; one college student returned to her Catholic faith after a visit to the farm.

Three Sisters of Mercy live on the farm that was once Lumen Christi retreat center and before that a Benedictine residence: Sister Elizabeth Secord has been at the farm since 2013 and is the program manager; Sister Holly Cloutier, the farm manager, as been here since 2010; and Sister Mary Quinn, the business manager, has lived here since 2013.

Here in the quiet, “God has a chance to get through,” Sister Secord said.

There is a plaque in the farm kitchen that reads, “Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God.”

Officially known as Mercy Ecology Inc. at Mercy Farm, it offers self-directed and directed retreats, group rentals (including recovery retreats and yoga) school programs including the Classroom Around Us and Human Impact on the Landscape, liturgical programs and farm experiences like preparing gardens, planting and stacking wood. Staff members also help visitors design their own programs on topics like canning, bread making and quilting.

The sisters care for the Earth through environmental education, organic gardening and sustainable living practices that include solar energy for about 85 percent of their electric needs.

Located on 39 acres ­— including eight conserved acres — the farm facilities include six bedrooms and three bathrooms for guests, a chapel/meeting room, a library, an art room and quiet space. There is a bee yard with hives and a barn with 20 solar panels. Two sheep — Bailey and Dexter — and numerous egg-laying hens live on the farm that draws guests from throughout the Northeast and from as far away as the southern states and England, Australia and Guam.

Produce from the gardens is used for guests, donated to the Fair Haven Concerned Food Shelf and shared with neighbors.

Visitors sometimes work in the gardens.

“We help [visitors] reverence the Earth and get a sense of the Earth,” Sister Secord said.

Owned by the Sisters of Mercy of the Northeast for more than a dozen years, the property is now focused on ecology; “healing of the Earth” is a focus of the religious order once primarily engaged in teaching and now also focused on women and children.

“We want to help people understand that the materialism and consumerism people experience causes us to be greedy,” Sister Secord said. “We want to help them understand the need to cut back on some of our consumption.”

She said that even though people have many “things,” many are still not spiritually fulfilled: “People still feel hungry and empty.”


                                                

‘If you are connected to the Earth, you’re fulfilled.
I see God in the Earth. I see God in all of life.’


— Sister Elizabeth Secord


                                                

 

The sisters hope to help people realize more and more that things they buy cannot fulfill them. “If you are connected to the Earth, you’re fulfilled,” she said. “I see God in the Earth. I see God in all of life.”

In his encyclical, “Laudato si,’ on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis wrote: “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: Everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”

Marking the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace launched a new website dedicated to the document and efforts throughout the world to put its teaching into practice.

The site — www.laudatosi.va — “witnesses not only to the impact of the encyclical, but also the creativity and generosity of the people of God everywhere in the world,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, council president.

Sisters of Mercy, said Sister Quinn, consider care of the Earth a “critical concern.”

They seek to address that concern through mercy and ecology. “Mercy is compassion” and includes “compassion for Earth and all living things,” Sister Secord said. 

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” the pope wrote.

People need to “get with it,” Sister Cloutier said, and realize the severity of climate change and humans’ effect on the Earth.

“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change,” the pope said.

To arrange a visit to Mercy Farm, call 802-537-4531.

Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.
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