Nuns: The Environmental Movement’s Most Powerful Ally?

The Sisters of Loretto fought the Bluegrass Pipeline and protected their Kentucky homeland.



o hear Kathleen Vonderhaar tell it, her contributions to environmental activism don’t merit discussion. “I don’t do much,” she said. But the 81-year-old nun, who lives in the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in rural central Kentucky, doesn’t downplay what her overall community does. Recently, the Catholic order has been fighting a developer’s attempt to place a pipeline across their land — and they’ve been winning.

In 2013, developers began approaching local landowners about a pipeline project. Williams and Companies intended the pipeline to carry natural gas extracted from the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that underlies much of the Northeastern United States, to ports on the Gulf Coast for export to Asia. The gas would cross the state of Kentucky in a pressurized above-ground pipe.

But shortly after developers Williams and Companies began approaching local landowners with contracts for land access, ad hoc groups, established nonprofits, and multiple religious orders began to speak out in opposition. What happened next raised questions about how much power activists can have — and if nuns and monks might be among the environmental movement’s most powerful allies.

The reasons for the sisters’ concern had to do with the ground they stood on. On the surface, rural central Kentucky is endless, undulating low hills covered in maple and oak. In autumn, with trees in full color and deer and turkey leaping along the road, it can feel idyllic. But the nuns say it is delicate, too — and, at least in part, they are objectively correct.


Underground, Kentucky lies atop fragile karst terrain. Karst is a kind of bedrock made mostly of limestone. It’s particularly prone to crumble, crack, and collapse into sinkholes. While karst is present around the world, the Kentucky land seems almost singularly delicate. At 400 square miles, Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves are the largest known cave system in the world. The cathedral-size, debris-strewn spaces below ground are a testament to how the Kentucky surface soil is a fragile, shifting shell. The sinkholes and caves form naturally when acidic water drips through the soil and through fissures in the rocks.

The large open spaces often provoke local hydrological problems. Water drawn from underground is often cleaned naturally when it is filtered slowly through an aquifer. But drawing from a well in Kentucky can mean drawing water that flowed unimpeded through polluted soil and then through open caves. Without filtration, pollutants remain in the water, and not in the soil and rock underground. Susan Classen, a co-member of the Sisters of Loretto, said she feared that that permeability meant spilled gas from pipeline explosions or leakages could quickly contaminate deep into the area’s soil and water.

Other Kentucky activists’ concerns were myriad. “There were other people for whom the pipeline was potentially coming through their land, and they objected to a threat in a very personal way,” said Andy McDonald of the Kentucky Conservation Committee. Some took a political stand against a private corporation’s misuse of eminent domain, a real estate law meant to allow the government to buy property for public use. Others, including Classen, said they were upset that the company had given landowners misleading information about the pipeline’s risks. One organization — the historic Trappist Abbey at Gethsemani — said they collectively refused to even speak to corporate agents out of sheer stubborn adherence to their traditional spiritual reclusiveness.

But while the locals have many angles to oppose a natural gas liquids pipeline, the view from afar is striking and singular. National coverage of the issue focused almost solely on the nuns and monks (PBS, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera).

In addition to their unique claim on the land itself, the religious wield a moral authority that is tough to deny.

Religious people opposing fracking are not strictly a Kentucky phenomenon. In 2013, leaders of the Church of England made headlines for opposing a drive by their own church to claim mineral rights on land in Great Britain. Meanwhile, Carmelite sisters have grabbed headlines in Australia, where they’ve strongly opposed gas and oil extraction. Sisters of St. Francis, a group of nuns in Philadelphia, invested $2,000 of their retirement money into Chesapeake Energy in 2010 just so that they could push the company’s shareholders to vote against its fracking practices. Even Pope Francis has gotten in on it. A year ago, he was photographed with Argentine environmental activists, holding a shirt that read (in Spanish) “No to Fracking.” (The left-wing pontiff also promised an encyclical expressing his viewpoints on environmentalism.)

Each time, headlines blur past any other activists involved to focus on the engagement of committed Catholics.

The Sisters can’t put their finger on quite why they get such attention. Classen wonders if it is “some intrigue with these religious communities of many people who are elderly who are making such a strong social stand.”

Perhaps that’s the case. But — at least in Kentucky — the Sisters seem to also occupy a niche with special power.

Newman_streamAmong all landowners, the religious had the clearest claim on local traditions. The area threatened by the pipeline is known as the “Kentucky Holy Land” because of the unusual concentration of religious orders in the area. Together, the Sisters of Loretto, Sisters of Charity, Dominican Sisters, and Trappist monks at the Abbey at Gethsemani have a long and storied history. The Sisters of Loretto was established as a group in the year 1812. Their Trappist neighbors at Gethsemani are living in the oldest monastery in North America still in operation. Some hundred years after the monastery’s 1848 origination, Gethsemani was also the home of Thomas Merton — the most popular Catholic writer of the last century, and an outspoken nature-lover and early adherent to ecology. Loretto Sister Kathy Wright summarized why history increases their ecological commitment: “We have a strong sense of the care that all the others who lived on this land before us took.”

In addition to their unique claim on the land itself, the religious wield a moral authority that is tough to deny. Classen said, “The religious communities have been able to express an ethical and moral imperative.”

Vonderhaar agrees. “The interesting thing about a religious order is that it’s a group of very strong people who are searching together for answers, and who back each other and love each other.” As a result, she said, “we have a responsibility to do some things and look out for things and to take risks that other people might not be able to do.” Free from the trappings of personal ambition, the religious women are ultra-clear that their basic social position is about justice. As a result, they seem more innately trustworthy than corporate public relation flaks.

The Sisters also offer a glimpse of a world beyond fossil fuels. In a time when large changes are required to limit disastrous climate change, visions for a future without oil and gas extraction involve a rapid, even unprecedented economic shift. And economic problems are coming with or without the fossil fuel divestment. By increasing the frequency of massive storms and droughts, climate change imperils the economic well-being of many nations.

The Sisters, however, model a simple, stable, ecologically minded lifestyle — one that calls into question the entire issue of whether fossil fuels are necessary. Sister Kathy Wright explained her lifestyle: “There’s a freedom in living simply. It’s not all about deprivation, doing without, whatever. I think to the extent that we can continue to model an alternative that is joyful… then I think there’s real hope.”

Newman_pathThere is hope. The activists in the Kentucky Holy Land have won major victories. Williams and Companies responded to their opposition last summer by immediately moving the pipeline route not only off the religious orders’ land, but also outside their county. And this April, the corporation suspended their development plans altogether — a full five months before they lost a court case involving eminent domain laws.

Whether the monastic challenge to corporate development will permanently end the pipeline construction is unclear to the sisters. Kathleen Vonderhaar said, “Big corporations have money. They’ve stepped out of the picture because people here were united enough. But they’ll be back.”

But Williams and Companies confirmed in an interview that they have no current plans to restart the development. “We are not investing any money right now in the Bluegrass Pipeline project,” company representative Sara Delgado said. While the company has cited a lack of investor and customer interest as the problem, they refused to discuss how community relations might have impacted the willingness of others to commit to the project. No matter what, it seems clear the corporation’s public relations problems have had a nun’s face.

The sisters plan to keep it up. Wright said they’ve had a land ethic for years. Classen said that even though it can sometimes be hard to “draw energy forth” to continue fighting climate change, she, too, has had no change of heart. Vonderhaar entered the convent in the early 1950s, originally intending to be “a person of prayer.” She, too, is committed to social action. Referring to the gently hilly karst terrain she calls home, and to the entire planet, she says, “We are called to leave this place better than we found it.”



M. Sophia Newman is a global health researcher and journalist whose work has been published in the U.S., UK, Bangladesh, and Japan. She holds a degree in biology from Tulane University, a master’s degree in public health from University of Illinois at Chicago, and completed a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Bangladesh and a 2014 Shannon Fellowship at the International Thomas Merton Society at Bellarmine University. Her next project will take her to West Africa. Follow her on Twitter.



  1. What a great piece. I’ve heard a bit about this case before, but hadn’t thought about the deeper impact of a religious order getting involved in anti-fracking activity. Thanks for writing about this! I’d love to read more.

  2. What a powerful testimony to conservation, advocacy, living simply, and the effect that a few can have on not only one’s little corner of the world but on the whole of the world. Thank you to the author for this strong and informative piece.

  3. The Science behind Peace and Global Harmony is the “Theory of Iceality on Environmental Arts”. Developed in 1987, it is the practical study on the aesthetics of the relationship between Humans and their Environment through Arts and Culture, ultimately promoting an effective sustainable global Culture of Peace between all Living Things ~ Human, Plant and Wildlife Kingdoms! The incorporation of the rights of flora and fauna in a “Universal Peace Equation” is the first major change in achieving a sustainable global Culture Peace on Earth in over 2000 Years.

  4. It was amazing to see the Sisters of Loretto mentioned in this article as heroes. My mother came from Shanghai, China and was taught by the sisters from Kentucky. A particular sister by the name of Sister Maureen came to the aid of a group of Chinese civilians when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in late 1930s. She stood up to a gang of Japanese soldiers who had corralled a group of people, and were threatening them with rifles. She said to the commander that she had made her peace with God and was ready for heaven, what peace had he made with God? With her bravery and conviction, he backed down and released the people. God bless Sister Maureen.

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