Notre Dame Students Visit Lowell for Immersive Experience

Last month, eight students from the University of Notre Dame spent a week at the Franciscan Life Process Center in Lowell where they stayed in yurts, learned about invasive species and planted a rain garden.

It was all part of a one-credit course on sustainability led by Sister Damien Marie Savino, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Lowell.

“I think the field service is really important,” Savino says. She holds a doctorate in environmental engineering as well as master’s degrees in theology and soil and plant science. Savino is also the dean of science and sustainability at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids.

In talking with Notre Dame about the possibility of hosting a program in Lowell, it was decided that an immersive experience would be ideal. The final format included several hours of academic instruction in a classroom combined with extensive time outdoors on the sisters’ farmland off Downes Street.

Putting Sustainability into Action

For Christine Hruby, a Notre Dame sophomore studying applied math and biology, this wasn’t her first field experience. Previously, she traveled to Germany to study sustainability. However, being at the Franciscan Life Process Center allowed her to put some lessons into action for the first time.

“I think it’s been really amazing to see the environmental stuff I’ve learned in the classroom in real life,” she told Lowell’s First Look.

Case in point: students spent one morning learning about invasive species and how they can harm an ecosystem. Then, they went out to the center’s prairie to identify and remove the invasive species found there.

Students Create Rain Garden

The upper rain garden was completed by students in 2022.

The major project for the week was the continuation of a rain garden that was begun by a group of Notre Dame students last year. While an upper garden was completed during a similar program in 2022, this year’s participants focused on a lower garden. This area was designed to collect water run-off and filter and cool it naturally before it can reach nearby Paige Creek, a trout habitat.

“You’re using science, but you’re also using math,” according to Hruby, who noted that calculations were needed to determine the size and placement of the garden.

The garden relies on native plants that were donated by Go Grow Plant Natives and purchased from the Kent Conservation District. They were chosen based on their need for little maintenance and ability to withstand Michigan weather. Wood chips for the garden were created using limbs that fell at the center during a late August storm.

“All the plants we’re using are native Michigan genotypes,” explains Amanda Whitscell-Fischer, a land program assistant at the Franciscan Life Process Center. “These plants have extremely deep root systems.” That allows water to percolate into the soil, and some plants can process pollutants.

A variety of grasses, sedges and shrubs were selected for the garden as well as some flowers such as Bishop’s Cap. “I thought that was really fun,” says Whitscell-Fischer, noting that the name was appropriate for the center’s Catholic identity.

Couse Included Elemental Experiences

Offered through the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, Franciscan Land Experiences included discussion and reflection of Catholic ecological teachings, including Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si.

Participants stayed in two yurts on the Franciscan Life Process Center property during the five-day course. The week also saw students prepare their own food, eating together and enjoying “elemental experiences” such as campfires.

“Pope Francis speaks about this – the value of having meals together,” Savino says. “It builds community, and it builds gratitude.”

To that end, students broke up into cook teams that shared meal preparation duties. “For the most part, we’re using our own meat, our own fruits, our own vegetables,” according to Savino, who explains that most ingredients came from the sisters’ farm or other local sources.

While the students have returned to Notre Dame, Savino hopes they took with them a sense of peace and purpose after their stay at the Franciscans’ 230-acre Lowell farm. She notes: “We feel that’s where true happiness lies — living a simple life close to nature and close to God in and through His Creation.”

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