When Susan Fox and her team at Christ the King Lutheran Church in West Chester invited the public to see what passion for real Creation care and patient, hard work was bringing to life, Sisters from the Community of the Transfiguration went to learn what they could. The Sisters from Glendale wanted to learn about the kind of intelligent, sustainable practices they could implement on the Convent grounds.
“God made everything wonderful and beautiful, and we, as humans, tend to screw things up,” says Fox, whose background is landscape architecture. When Fox first started attending Christ the King, she was asked to “make the grounds look pretty,” so she kept a well-manicured lawn. Deep down, however, she always wanted to let the suburban church’s seven acres return to its native landscape.
“Suburbia is devoid of nature. Lawns aren’t natural. Mulch beds aren’t natural. Neatness isn’t natural,” says Fox. “So, the question becomes, ‘How can we take what we’re used to and still bring nature back?’”
Several years ago, her congregation started a community garden providing food and plants.
“Diversity is best,” says Fox. “When you have monocultural, it usually crashes and burns.”
Christ the King Lutheran Church members invited various community groups, such as university students and Boy Scouts, to care for the forest on the property. They are currently working on planting 300 native baby trees.
“We don’t talk about God stuff to those who help in the garden,” says Fox. “But it’s wonderful because people who would never step inside the church to hear the message come to our grounds and are fed, engaged and enriched. That’s what it’s all about.”
Seeing what had been accomplished at Christ the King Lutheran Church encouraged the Sisters to turn dreams of more sustainable practices into reality.
“They are doing pioneering work at Christ the King and making a huge difference in caring for the land, building community, and providing food for those in the area who are hungry,” says Sister Diana Doncaster. “It’s incredibly impressive.”
The Community of the Transfiguration project began with a concern for finding sustainable ways to slow stormwater runoff, which has long been an issue.
“We didn’t just want to dig ditches and install a lot of pipes,” says Sister Diana. “We wanted to enhance the beauty of the grounds, encourage pollinators like bees and butterflies, and hold back as much water as possible. We wanted the grounds to be cared for, going forward, in ways that nurture the land rather than control and manipulate it.”
Christie Boron, the principal architect with emersion DESIGN, designed the new school buildings at Bethany School, one of the Sisters’ active ministries. Boron is now in charge of coordinating the grounds’ revamp.
“As we went through the process of designing and planning the classroom buildings and campus, we incorporated solar panels in the cafeteria and on the third grade through eighth grade building because the Sisters are very sustainability-minded,” says Boron. They put in a geo-exchange well field to serve the buildings mechanically, as well as rain gardens and bioswales — channels designed to concentrate and convey stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution.
Having completed a great deal of sustainable work on the school (south) side of the campus, the Sisters have now turned their attention to the convent (north) side. They live at the top of a hill, so their primary objective is to minimize water flow into the neighboring areas.
The Community of the Transfiguration has existed since the late 1800s, making it older than many of the houses in the basin. However, the Sisters are working with the Village of Glendale to improve infrastructure and protect their neighbors, who are understandably upset about their property flooding. “We want to hold as much water as possible on our land during storms, but do it in a way that adds beauty and opportunities for education for others who are interested in this combination of practicality and sustainability,” Sister Diana notes.
Rachel Robinson, landscape architect and owner of Rachel Robinson Design Landscape Architecture (RRDLA), is working with Boron on the project.
“The Sisters wanted to create a sustainable environment with plants that are native and edible,” says Robinson. “They also wanted to protect plants for foraging.”
Robinson and her team have worked with Eric Dawalt, a civil engineer with Ridge Water LLC, a firm specializing in green stormwater infrastructure. Dawalt designed the bio-retention beds, also known as bioswales, to minimize the impact on the property’s well-established shade trees.
“The idea is to attract birds, butterflies, bees, bats, owls and other animals because they help promote a balanced ecosystem,” Robinson explains, noting that they will also plant an orchard.
“It’s incredible. I take my hat off to the Sisters for promoting a sustainable campus,” she adds.
Dawalt’s company will do the structural work for the bioswales and rain garden system. The project has been collaborative between emersion DESIGN, Ridge Water and RRDLA.
The architects are also incorporating nature trails, reflection points and retreat areas. Boardwalks, plazas and patios have been designed along the way, with most of them ADA-accessible.
“It’s definitely not just a ‘stormwater project,’” says Boron. “It ties into the Sisters’ retreat center, which will be accessible to the community at large.”
The Sisters also wanted to respect the site’s history, particularly as it relates to the Native Americans who once lived on the property. Therefore, visitors will be able to read educational signage as they walk the property. “We are hoping to build relationships with the descendants of those who lived here, who recognized that we must live in relationship with the land, must nurture the land which sustains us,” adds Sister Diana. “We also benefit from their ancestors’ forced removal. To honor them by creating a place of peace and truth-telling is part of the dream that energizes this work.”
RRDLA enlisted the services of an ecologist from Davey Resource Group who will plant native shrubs and perennials in the rain garden. These plants withstand wet conditions and absorb stormwater into their root systems, which replenishes the water table.
“It will be a beautiful grouping of bioswales, kind of stepping down the hillside with the grade to the gathering terrace aligned to the convent,” says Robinson. “It will create a linear connection to the mature shade trees.”
Madison Tree Services is helping protect the trees, and Hyde Park Landscaping & Tree Service is doing the installation work.
The property will offer a walkout to the serene “Sister’s Garden,” complete with a stone altar for worship, and a recirculating stream bed that creates a calming atmosphere with the sound of flowing water.
There are also plans to construct an amphitheater for lectures and entertainment and a shallow reflection pond that will provide a peaceful and meditative environment. The pond will be located in a way that allows you to sit and enjoy the view of the convent, trees and the campus.
While much of this work is expected to be completed by the close of this calendar year, some springtime planting is still to come in 2024.
“When it’s all done, it will be a place of beauty, prayer and retreat,” says Sister Diana.
Building connections with neighbors and the surrounding community is essential to the Christ the King Lutheran Church and Community of the Transfiguration projects.
“People can be surrounded by others and still be lonely,” Fox says. “We want to make those connections and erase that loneliness.”
Want to learn more about Creation care? Email Susan Fox at email@example.com.
The Community of the Transfiguration is located at 495 Albion Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45246. Call 513-771-5291 or visit ctsisters.org for more information.