At Work, Play and Prayer in the Fields of the Lord
New Catholic Ecology Center opens opportunities to know and love God’s creation.
Joseph Meyer does not consider himself an expert in the field of theology — but he does find theology in the fields, the woods and the various waterways that course through the 60 acres of the newly opened Catholic Ecology Center (CEC) in Neosho, Wisconsin.
As the CEC’s founder and executive director, Meyer took his inspiration for the project from Church teaching on creation and the environment — especially Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (Care for Our Common Home).
The center officially opened this past spring — with the blessings of Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee. (The CEC is located within the archdiocese, about 50 miles northwest of the see city.) On July 10, the archdiocese gave its official stamp of approval, when Auxiliary Bishop James Schuerman of Milwaukee blessed the center, Meyer led an ecology hiking tour of the center’s diverse terrain, and concluded his visit with Mass.
Prior to planting the CEC in its current location, Meyer also founded its parent organization, the Laudato Si’ Project (LSP), in 2016. Meyer said he already had some ideas for a faith-based science-centered program but was inspired to act on these ideas by the encyclical’s call for “an integral ecology” that incorporates both the truth of faith and the truths of science.
“I am well aware that in the areas of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity,” Pope Francis writes. “Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both.”
Through the CEC and the LSP, Meyer hopes to engage in this dialogue by helping, as the CEC website states, “to restore humanity’s connection to the natural world through faith, education, stewardship and recreation.”
God’s Not-So-Little Acres
Meyer told the Register that long before seeking to reestablish humanity’s connection with God’s creation, he had reestablished his own connection with God by deepening his Catholic faith during his college years.
Meyer holds a bachelor’s in biology/environmental science education from the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Milwaukee and a master’s in education from UW-La Crosse. After graduation he taught at national parks and nature centers around the country. Meyer currently teaches science at Marquette High School in Milwaukee, which is where he first began to explore more deeply the Church’s perennial teaching, as reaffirmed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the relation between science and faith and on humanity’s responsibility as stewards of creation.
“Eventually, Laudato Si’ came out in 2015, and for me, it solidified my desire to respond to these teachings,” he said. “As Pope Francis says, our care for the poor, for the environment, our faith and social justice and a deep prayer life — all are intimately connected.”
The LSP was already offering faith-based ecological programs, workshops and events to the public before the creation of the CEC; but sometime in 2018, Meyer realized that to be truly successful in establishing his vision for an integral ecology, he would need property that could give his efforts permanence and stability.
“We had a vision for a Catholic ecology center, creating a central space to amp our programming up,” he told the Register. “That took different forms over the last two and a half years. In the process, though, we were in a couple of land deals that fell through and were very disheartened.”
But, Meyer added, “we know God’s providence stays faithful to us,” and it was God who helped lead the LSP to Camp Winding River.
With the help of private donations, large and small, Meyer said, “The funding was in place, and God, piece by piece, put this intricate, nearly impossible situation together to make it happen.”
This past March, Meyer found his promised land, (ecologically speaking): a Girl Scout camp called Camp Winding River. In total, there were 225 acres for sale — 60 of which the CEC bought, while the remainder was purchased and renamed Camp SIM by a local businessman and CEC supporter, Keith Iverson, CEO of a nearby Milwaukee-area based injection molding company, Sussex IM.
Meyer told the Register that Iverson holds company retreats and recreational events at his camp, and both entities share each other’s resources.
“We manage it practically as one unit,” Meyer said. “We use their hiking trails, and they use our trails — that kind of thing.”
The recently purchased land, which Meyer described as possessing “a diverse habitat,” demonstrates an integral ecology of its own.
“There’s mixture of open prairie grassland, farmland and woodlands, planted with pines, spruces and other typical forest trees — including maples and oaks,” he said. “There are also wetlands on the property — a pond and a spring-fed creek, which feeds into the Rubicon River, 2 miles of which also winds through the property.”
The property also features a few miles of hiking trails and a natural hillside amphitheater for outdoor Masses, Meyer added (including the one celebrated July 10 with Bishop Schuerman).
So much diversified beauty is important for CEC’s purposes, Meyer said, “not only from an aesthetic or recreational perspective — to provide quiet places for retreats” or places to hike, canoe and explore, “but also from an ecological perspective — to provide opportunities for robust field science projects.”
Serving as an open-air year-round laboratory, the CEC provides activities, projects and educational programs. Some of these programs, such as the annual monarch butterfly tagging program and the “Owl Prowl” night birdwatching hikes, were created by LSP before the CEC opened last spring. But the new property also provides for more sustained scientific projects, Meyer said.
“We can do prairie restorations or plantings to better the ecology on site, wildlife monitoring to see what exists here and how it changes over time, or we can catch critters in the pond for water-quality testing,” Meyers said. “We can be doing what nature centers do, but we can also bring faith into this, which is something these nature centers won’t touch. That’s our niche — to bring our faith into everything we do — ecology, recreational events, education. That’s why we exist.”
Now that God has provided the CEC a home, Meyer hopes to return the favor by building a chapel on the CEC’s grounds. That effort also seems to have God’s blessing. Meyer told the Register that the CEC has raised $160,000 through private donations and CEC membership fees toward a matching $250,000 matching grant.
And, yes, Meyer said, the chapel will incorporate environmentally friendly and sustainable building materials.
“God willing,” he said, “we hope to start building next year.”
Work and Pray
One of those immediately drawn to the CEC is the pastor of St. Jude parish in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Father Mike Erwin, who was studying to be a dairy veterinarian before God called him to serve his Church.
“I’m an old science major from UW-Madison,” he said, “so I love keeping track of the environment.”
Every other week, on his day off, Father Erwin visits the CEC to lend a hand, whether in weeding flowerbeds or cleaning restrooms.
“I tend to pick up whatever job is next in line in need of doing,” he said, “and it doesn’t have to be at all a glamourous job.”
But it’s not all work and no prayer for Father Erwin, as he also uses his time at the CEC to deepen his prayer life.
“It’s an easy place to pray and connect to our God,” he said.
Father Erwin is encouraged by the young people — and young families — coming to the CEC.
“This center is empowering the young people of the archdiocese — and beyond — to enjoy that nature-loving part of themselves,” he said, “and to know that’s integrated into how they can live their faith.”
As a case in point, Bill and Colleen Pedersen, parishioners at St. Jerome on Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, home-school the five oldest of their six children and find in the CEC a living laboratory for their students’ science lessons.
“When you go to school,” Colleen Pedersen told the Register, “the best science classes are always the experiments and field trips, where you’re looking at the specimens with your own eyes and in real life. That’s what we’re doing at the CEC — learning about science in a relevant way within a real context — the real world. You’re not just reading a paragraph from a textbook.”
The CEC helps the Pedersens teach their children that the world around us and the world to come are wholly compatible.
“From what I’ve experienced at the CEC — and Joe [Meyer] explains it well — faith and science are not counter to one another, but work hand in hand,” Bill Pedersen said. “God created everything, including science, how ecosystems work and how animals adapt and live.”
The CEC has also made a lasting impression on the Pedersen children this past summer.
“Our kids went to a few different camps this summer, and they all were excellent,” Colleen Pedersen said. “After attending the one-day camp at CEC, one of my daughters said that was the best camp of the summer. That speaks to the true, the good and the beautiful being presented at the CEC.”