Joseph Meyer doesn’t see himself as an expert in theology – but he does find theology in the fields, forests, and various waterways that flow through the 60 acres of the newly opened Catholic Ecology Center (CEC) in Neosho, Wisconsin.
As the founder and managing director of CEC, Meyer was inspired by the church’s teaching on creation and the environment – especially Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si ‘ (Take care of our common home).
The center officially opened last spring with the blessing of Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee. (The CEC is located within the Archdiocese, about 80 km northwest of the city of See.) On July 10, the Archdiocese gave its official stamp of approval, when Auxiliary Bishop James Schuerman of Milwaukee blessed the center, Meyer led an ecological walking tour through the diverse terrain of the center and ended his visit with the mass.
Before founding the CEC at its current location, Meyer also founded its parent organization, the Laudato Si ‘Project (LSP), in 2016. responded to these ideas by calling the encyclical for “an integral ecology” encompassing both the truth of belief and the truths of science.
“I am aware that there are those in politics and philosophy who decisively reject the idea of ââa creator or consider it irrelevant and consequently dismiss the rich contribution that religions can make to an integral ecology and full development as irrational.” of humanity â, writes Pope Francis. âOthers see religions simply as a tolerable subculture. Nevertheless, with their different approaches to understanding reality, science and religion can enter into an intensive dialogue that is fruitful for both. “
Through the CEC and LSP, Meyer hopes to participate in this dialogue by helping, as the CEC website says, “re-establish humanity’s connection to the natural world through faith, education, management and recreation”.
God’s not so little mornings
Meyer told the registry that long before attempting to reconnect mankind with God’s creation, he restored his own connection with God by deepening his Catholic faith during his college years.
Meyer holds a BA in Biology / Environmental Science from the University of Wisconsin (UW) -Milwaukee and a Masters in Education from UW-La Crosse. After graduation, he taught in national parks and nature centers across the country. Meyer currently teaches science at Marquette High School in Milwaukee, where he first began the creation of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“Ultimately, Laudato Si ‘ came out in 2015 and for me it strengthened my desire to respond to these teachings, âhe said. “As Pope Francis says, our concern for the poor, for the environment, our faith and social justice, and a deep prayer life are closely linked.”
Even before CEC was founded, the LSP offered the public faith-based ecological programs, workshops and events; But sometime in 2018 Meyer realized that in order to really successfully realize his vision of a holistic ecology, he needed real estate that could give his efforts duration and stability.
“We had the vision for a Catholic ecology center that would create a central space to improve our program,” he told the register. âThat has taken different forms in the last two and a half years. However, we were in a couple of land contracts that failed and were very discouraged. “
But, Meyer added, âwe know God’s providence is faithful to us,â and it was God who helped lead the LSP to Camp Winding River.
With the help of large and small private donations, Meyer said: “The funding was there, and God piece by piece put this complicated, almost impossible situation together to make it a reality.”
Last March, Meyer found his promised land (ecologically speaking): a boy scout camp called Camp Winding River. There was a total of 225 acres for sale – 60 of which were bought by CEC while the rest was bought and renamed Camp SIM by a local businessman and CEC supporter, Keith Iverson, CEO of a nearby injection molding company near Milwaukee, Sussex AM.
Meyer told the registry that Iverson holds corporate retreats and recreational events at his camp and that both companies share each other’s resources.
“We manage it practically as a unit,” says Meyer. “We use their hiking trails, and they use our paths – something like that.”
The recently acquired land, which Meyer described as a âdiverse habitatâ, has its very own ecology.
“There’s a mix of open prairie grassland, farmland, and woodland, planted with pine, spruce, and other typical forest trees – including maples and oaks,” he said. “There are also wetlands on the property – a pond and a spring-fed stream that joins the Rubicon River, which also winds 2 miles through the property.”
The property also has a few miles of hiking trails and a natural hillside amphitheater for outdoor masses, Meyer added (including the one celebrated with Bishop Schuerman on July 10).
So much varied beauty is important for the purposes of the CEC, said Meyer, “not only from an aesthetic or recreational point of view – to offer quiet retreats” or to offer places for hiking, canoeing and exploring, “but also from an ecological point of view – to offer opportunities Offer”. for robust field research projects. “
As an open-air laboratory open all year round, the CEC offers activities, projects and educational programs. Some of these programs, such as the annual monarch butterfly tagging program and the Owl Prowl night bird watching program, were launched by LSP prior to the opening of the CEC last spring. But the new property also ensures more sustainable scientific projects, said Meyer.
âWe can do prairie restorations or plantings to improve the ecology on site, monitor wildlife to see what exists here and how it changes over time, or we can trap creatures in the pond to test the water quality âSaid Meyers. âWe can do what nature centers do, but we can also believe in what these nature centers do not touch. That’s our niche – bringing our faith into everything we do – ecology, recreational activities, education. That is why we exist. “
After God gave CEC a home, Meyer hopes to return the favor by building a chapel on the CEC site. This effort also seems to have God’s blessing. Meyer told the registry that the CEC raised $ 160,000 through private donations and CEC membership dues for a matching grant of $ 250,000.
And yes, said Meyer, the chapel will contain environmentally friendly and sustainable building materials.
“God willing,” he said, “let’s hope to start building next year.”
Work and pray
One of those who was immediately drawn to CEC is the pastor of St. Jude’s Parish in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Father Mike Erwin, who trained as a dairy veterinarian before God called him to serve his Church.
“I’m an old science student from UW-Madison,” he said, “so I love to keep an eye on the environment.”
Every two weeks Father Erwin visits the CEC on his day off to help out, be it weeding flower beds or cleaning toilets.
“I tend to take on whatever job that needs to be done next,” he said, “and it doesn’t have to be a glamorous job at all.”
But for Father Erwin this is not just work and not prayer, because he also uses his time in CEC to deepen his prayer life.
âIt’s an easy place to pray and connect with our God,â he said.
Father Erwin is encouraged by the young people – and young families – who come to the CEC.
“This center enables the young people of the Archdiocese – and beyond – to enjoy this nature-loving part of themselves,” he said, “and to know that this is built into their lives with their faith.”
One example is Bill and Colleen Pedersen, parishioners from St. Jerome, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, who teach the five eldest of their six children at home and find a living science lab for their students in the CEC.
âWhen you go to school,â Colleen Pedersen told the registry, âthe best science classes are always the experiments and field trips where you see the specimens with your own eyes and in real life. That’s what we do at the CEC – learning knowledge about science in a relevant way in 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 of the future are perfectly compatible.
âAfter what I saw at the CEC – and Joe [Meyer] explains it well – belief and science are not contradicting each other, but work hand in hand, âsaid Bill Pedersen. “God created everything, including the science of how ecosystems work and how animals adapt and live.”
The CEC also made a lasting impression on the Pedersen children last summer.
“Our kids have been to a couple of different camps this summer and they have all been excellent,” said Colleen Pedersen. âAfter attending the one day camp at the CEC, one of my daughters said that this was the best camp of the summer. That speaks for the true, good and beautiful that will be presented at the CEC. “