“As Franciscan women, Felician Sisters are called to care for the environment. We have made a deliberate, moral choice to increase our use of renewable energy.”Sr. Mary Jean Sliwinski
As provincial sustainability coordinator for the Felician Sisters of North America, Sr. Mary Jean Sliwinski spends much of her time translating the Franciscan love of creation into active stewardship of the environment at the Felician convents and ministries.
In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission Report defined sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “We need to think of our impact on our earth and on the environment and on our fellow human beings — not just right now, but in the future,” said Sr. Jean.
It was Sr. Jean’s love of nature that brought her to this position after a litany of ministries that included facilities management, human resources, food services, and music education. “I always loved the outdoors,” said Sr. Jean, who at one time contemplated becoming a forest ranger, “and I was looking at our Franciscan values and environmental stewardship and I said wouldn’t it be great if I could have a job doing something like that. The provincial team told me to go for it.”
The shift in ministry would require Sr. Jean, who holds a degree in optics and two in management, to go back to school in pursuit of a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from American Public University, which she completed in 2013. After finishing her degree, she approached Provincial Minister Sr. Mary Christopher Moore about seeking opportunities for experience in the field, to which Sr. Christopher replied, “We have a job for you.” With that, Sr. Jean was appointed the first provincial sustainability coordinator.
“My real job was to make us more environmentally friendly,” said Sr. Jean, “to educate beyond that, and to get us more involved in the ICCR (Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility), a faith-based organization that uses stockholdings to advocate with corporations on human rights and the environment.” She now sits on the board of the ICCR and is the chair of the Socially Responsible Investment Committee for the province.
As Sr. Jean tried to figure out where to start, she leaned on her experience in facilities management. “Fortunately, I served as facility manager at our central convent in Buffalo,” she said, “so I had a good idea of how our properties work, and I always wanted to put solar panels on our property in Buffalo. I attended New York State Energy Symposium that year and they were talking about expanding solar energy and I said to the administration, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get involved in the use of solar power?’ And they told me to run with it.”
The result was a two mega-watt project that involved the construction of arrays on six sites in five states across the province. The release of the encyclical Laudato Si: Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis in 2015 reinforced the importance of the project. “It set care for the earth into Catholic Social Teaching,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest component of Sr. Jean’s job is educating the Felician Sisters, ministries, and “anyone who will listen,” about our moral obligation to care for the earth. “Education is the key part in trying to move us forward,” she said. “What I would like to inspire is a definite awareness of the beauty of the natural world around us and our responsibility toward it.”
Sr. Jean encourages people to spend time experiencing nature with the senses. “We care for things we really love,” she said. “We need to move toward loving the earth, the creatures on it, the people within it, and the only way you can really love someone is to develop a bond, develop a relationship. When you have a relationship that you really care about, you’re less apt to hurt it and maybe more apt to pay attention to your own actions.”