Priests plant native grasses and flowers in spirit of ‘Laudato Si”

| September 12, 2017 | 2 Comments

Native prairie grasses abound on property owned by Father Kevin Clinton, pastor of St. Wenceslaus in New Prague, who began the work to restore the natural landscape in 1994.

Prairie restored

Father Kevin Clinton waded through a field of bluestem prairie grass that reached over his head and up into the deep summer sky Aug. 28.

His excitement grew as he approached the crest of a hill on 140 acres of land he co-owns with his sister in the far southwestern corner of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, near St. Peter.

From that vantage, the landscape burst with native flowers and grasses, beauty Father Clinton has enjoyed since undertaking a prairie restoration project in 1994. This year’s summer rains, combined with a spring burn, have made it one of his prairie’s strongest years.

“This is my childhood playground. I grew up here on this farm,” said Father Clinton, 68, pastor of St. Wenceslaus in New Prague. “I have deep roots in this land. My ancestors are from here. My father ran this farm. His uncle ran the farm.”

Father James Notebaart stands in a field of native grasses and flowers on property he owns near Red Wing.

Twenty-three years ago, Father Clinton decided to take half of the land out of crop farming and put it into a permanent program called Reinvest in Minnesota, which guarantees this portion of land will never again go under the plow.

That is exactly the way Father Clinton wants it. Doing all of the tasks associated with prairie restoration — planting, removing unwanted weeds and trees, and burning his whole prairie every three years — has helped him develop a deep connection to both the earth and God. And, he said, this pays great dividends in his ministry.

“I’ve been a priest for 43 years,” he said. “I find my life very, very intense and very complex. I’ve noticed that priests who have a cabin or a place to go to on their day off seem to be more healthy and balanced. Since my experience here on the farm [growing up] was so great, I thought this would be a good thing for me to do when I need to unwind.”

A monarch butterfly spreads its wings on Father Notebaart’s land.

About 63 miles northeast, Father James Notebaart is doing something similar. About 15 years ago, he bought some land not far from his childhood home of Red Wing and began converting it to native prairie. Like Father Clinton, he finds spiritual nourishment when he gets his hands dirty working in the prairie.

“It’s incredibly peaceful,” said Father Notebaart, 72, who came out of retirement a year ago to take over the Native American parish of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, where he had served up to his retirement, after the death of his predecessor, Father Michael Tegeder, in July 2016. “I’ve got a dog, and she and I will take long walks and explore. She explores where she wants to, and I explore where I want to.”

Because he has spent 25 years ministering to the Twin Cities’ Native American community, Father Notebaart feels drawn to some of the cultures’ spiritual elements. The edge of his property is used periodically by a nearby Dakota tribe for parts of its ceremonies. He has participated in some of them over the last 21 years.

“It’s like a retreat, in many respects,” he said. “It’s a series of ceremonies for seven days of purification. Then, there’s a period of fasting from food and water alone on the bluffs.”

Both priests said spending time in their respective prairies connects with the theme of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home,” published in June 2015.

“I read it recently, and the first chapter nails the American Indian sense of the sacredness of the land, belonging to the land on one side, curating it, and then it, in turn, nourishes us,” Father Notebaart said. “What the American Indians would say is that many of these plants and grasses are medicines. It’s just that we may not know how to use them yet. Medicine in the Indian sense is a spiritual thing, but it’s also a physical thing. So, it’s this unity of humanity with nature. I think the pope’s encyclical is very much about that.”

Father Clinton, left, talks with Matt Lasch, Minnesota contracting manager at Applied Ecological Services, who has helped Father Clinton with his prairie restoration.

Father Clinton not only sees the connection between the pope’s words and what goes on at his prairie, but wants every visitor to see it, too. At the front edge of his property near the road, he has erected a sign with the words “Laudato Si’” at the top, which matches a similar sign in St. Wenceslaus’ parking lot. There, too, native grasses and flowers can be found, planted in and around the concrete and asphalt.

The pope’s message is so important, Father Clinton said, he wants to take every opportunity he can to spread it.

“In ‘Laudato Si’,’ Pope Francis talks about how important it is for people to have in their minds, in their experience, not just occasionally but very regularly, exposure to … the natural world,” he said. “I was delighted, absolutely delighted, with ‘Laudato Si’’ coming out. I thought, ‘He knows what I know.’ In fact, not only does he know what I know, he knows more than I know. And, he’s nailing it. He’s put this issue on the agenda of our living a faith life in the 21st century.”

Adding to the emphasis of “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis recently issued a joint message with an Orthodox leader about the care for creation to mark the Sept. 1 World Day of Prayer for Creation, an annual event that started in 1989 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Along with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constaninople, the pope reminded his flock, in a joint statement, that that ignoring God’s plan for creation has “tragic and lasting” consequences for both the human and natural environments, and that “our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.”

Field thistle thrives on Father Clinton’s restored prairie.

As Father Clinton has continued his prairie restoration project, which may include expanding to new parts of his property in the coming years, he has learned that the core of the Christian message — death and resurrection — can also be found in the process of maintaining a prairie.

“It’s just part of the mystery of how God works, of how God creates — very slow over time, with suffering, dying and rising, and greater life coming as a result,” Father Clinton said. “That’s what a prairie is — spring, summer, fall and the death of winter, and it starts all over again. The prairie has been teaching me that I am part of a paschal mystery that not only is something that is at the heart of our Christian and Catholic identity, but is also right at the heart of what is going on in nature.”

One poignant example is the spring burn, which experts in prairie restoration recommend doing every three to five years. Father Clinton said he sees dramatic results every summer after the burn, including this one.

“The transformation in the prairie is amazing,” he said. “Prairie fires renew prairies. The tinder and grass of the previous four years is burned. It’s gone, and the ash is the fertilizer for the prairie plants that are down there with deep roots to jump start and take off in the spring and summer.”

Because the roots of the prairie grasses and flowers are deep — with some plunging down 15 feet — the fire doesn’t kill the plants. Instead, the non-native and undesirable species like Canadian thistle are torched and thereby eliminated. Meanwhile, some seeds only germinate through fire, he noted.

Big bluestem is illuminated by late afternoon sun in Father Notebaart’s restored prairie.

Father Clinton has hired prairie restoration expert Matt Lasch of Wisconsin-based Applied Ecological Services to work with him on his restoration project. Lasch said more individuals and companies are choosing to restore native prairies. Municipalities are deciding to plant native grasses and flowers, while learning they save money in the long run on things like lawn mowing.

Father Clinton also noted that southern and western Minnesota has historically been prairie, which was admired by earlier settlers in the 1800s.

“The pioneers coming to this area would refer to the prairie as a sea of grass,” he said. “It would look like an ocean. You can see the wind flowing through the prairie grass and it’s like an ocean.”

The beauty of this restored landscape is something both priests have had opportunities to share with others. Father Clinton has invited groups of students and teachers from St. Wenceslaus Catholic School to come and explore. He said the fourth- and fifth-graders who arrive “go nuts. They just have a wonderful time.” He has also hosted students from a Catholic school in Mankato. Father Notebaart, meanwhile, treats his property as more of a retreat, but he has invited many Dakota guests to walk his grounds.

Both priests occasionally spend the
night — or several days — on their respective properties. About 10 years ago, Father Notebaart purchased a cabin built in the 1860s, which he moved onto the far end of the property. It’s rustic and decorated with furniture from Tibet. He has a small stove and sleeps on the floor, even during the winter, which happens to be one of his favorite times of year to go to his land.

“I come to the cabin all the time,” he said. “It’s isolated nicely. There’s no electricity, no phones, no water, no anything. It’s just serene. It’s absolutely serene. … I come here simply to be here.”

Both priests are nearing the end of full-time ministry. When they truly retire, an easy bet would be that both spend more time on their properties. Neither plans to live there, but the prairie will be woven into their lifestyles.

“I’m a couple years from retirement and I think one of the things that will happen [afterward] is my days here will increase significantly,” Father Clinton said. “I’ll be helping various places as a priest, but I’ll be able to spend more time in this wonderful place where I experience the presence of God and the reality of God’s goodness in God’s creation.”

As for Father Notebaart, strolling his restored prairie “is just part of who I am.”

Photos by Dave Hrbacek





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