By Will Shaw with Sr. Maxine Pohlman, SSND and Fr. Jack Lau, OMI
The weather was beautiful on Saturday, October 7th in Godfrey, Illinois, and just outside of town, the grounds of the Oblate Novitiate and the La Vista Ecological Learning Center were showing colorful signs of early autumn as visitors from around the area gathered for “Come, Experience La Vista.” The day was one of a series of events La Vista is sponsoring in collaboration with the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows (about 25 miles away in Belleville, Illinois). The series is designed to show the connections between spirituality and ecology, highlighted recently in Pope Francis’ Encyclical, “Laudato Si.” The day was hosted by La Vista’s Director, Sr. Maxine Pohlman, SSND, and Fr. Jack Lau, OMI, a member of the Formation Team at the Oblate Novitiate which shares the 255 acres the Oblates have owned for nearly 70 years.
Fr. Jack welcomed the group and talked about how religious communities are being called upon to make their lands a legacy gift to future generations. How the land is a refuge preserving biodiversity and animal species unique to the region as well as a place of beauty and peace for people to experience. According to Fr. Jack, “As you enter the grounds on the long driveway, there is a sense of “letting go” that takes place.” The driveway leads to a spectacular view of the expanse of the river from these bluffs overlooking it.
The Oblates were mindful of the beauty that is in nature and the need to preserve it long before the Pope’s “Laudato Si.” In 2000, 143 acres of the Oblate property were placed in a land trust through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Great Rivers Land Trust. This serves to preserve, enhance and restore one of the largest contiguous forested areas in Illinois between Alton and Grafton, Illinois. The “Great River Road,” one of Illinois’ “Seven Great Wonders,” runs between those cities with the river on one side, and the forest preserve on the other.
The U.S. Oblates formally established the Oblate Ecological Initiative in 2001 to begin both the La Vista Ecological Learning Center and the Community Supported Garden at La Vista under the leadership of then Oblate Father Maurice Lang. Sr. Maxine joined the effort in 2005, assuming leadership in 2009. Fr. Jack Lau has been involved at least as far back as 2010 and now, as a member of the Oblate formation team, he wants the novices to see that spirituality and nature are inextricably linked, “If we’re going to pray the psalms and bless the lord and sky, and snow, and rain, if we don’t take care of our land, there’s a disconnect there.”
In addition to Fr. Jack’s opening presentation, the day included inspiring talks by: Alley Ringhausen, Executive Director of the Great Rivers Land Trust; Debbie Scott Newman, Natural Areas Preservation Specialist with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission; Virginia Woulfe-Beile, Three Rivers Project Coordinator for the Sierra Club; and Virginia Nesmith, Initiator of La Vista’s Pollinator Garden. The newly established pollinator garden was created in response to the bee and monarch crisis. Here plants were chosen to flower throughout the growing season, providing chemical free nectar to bees, monarch butterflies and many other insects, critical to the pollination of crops.
The speakers offered excellent reflections on how the Oblates’ commitment to promoting the integrity of creation has had a significant impact on life in Alton-Godfrey area. They made the deep connections between spirituality and ecology that we need if we are to truly care for creation.
Participants then enjoyed snacks and a guided tour of the garden, and a hayride out to the far reaches of the land, a true experience of the land called La Vista. All left enriched by the sharing, and grateful to the Oblates who have been a spiritual anchor in this area for over 60 years.
When in the area, come and see how the Missionary Oblates have connected spirituality and ecology in caring for the 255 acres of bluffs, forest, meadows and fields they have called home for over 60 years. Discover the deep connections between faith and land in your own life. www.lavistaelc.org