Providence and the Madawaska shoreline

Sister Rita and Sister Betty Berrigan looking at the planted wildflowers near the river bank.St. Joseph Sister Betty Berrigan (left) listens to Providence Sister Pat Amyot describe how the planting of wildflowers will strengthen the shoreline.

BY LOUISE SLOBODIAN

A year ago, Denice Wilkins enjoyed a personal retreat at Stillpoint House of Prayer in the Calabogie area of Ontario.

She’s a retired environmental educator and naturalist who was looking to spend time in quiet contemplation and mindfulness. While she was there she noticed the many things Stillpoint was already doing to care for the environment. With this as encouragement, she wrote Stillpoint a letter with ideas for how they might expand on their care for creation. This is the story of how one of those recommendations was followed-up this fall.

Stillpoint sits on the Madawaska River in a picturesque area of the Ottawa Valley. There are five guest rooms. It is a place of silence, in a homelike setting. Two Sisters run the place. Sister Betty Berrigan, Stillpoint’s director, is a Sister of St. Joseph in Canada and her Congregation owns Stillpoint.

Providence Sister Pat Amyot has been there for four years, working alongside Sister Betty to do everything from offering spiritual direction to cleaning up after meals. It’s Sister Pat’s job to take care of the gardens, and it’s a job she loves.

Both Sisters embraced the recommendations that Denice left them. Among many things, she had suggested reducing the size of the lawn, planting native trees and mowing only trails, as well as leaving brush piles for wildlife habitat. In addition, she offered to connect Stillpoint to Watersheds Canada, a non-profit organization that works to restore shoreline habitats. Watersheds wrote a funding proposal and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans granted Stillpoint the funds to do a shoreline planting. Stillpoint’s contribution was in-kind volunteer help. 

A large tree surrounded by potted plants waiting to go into the ground.

Lots of preparation went into the planting days. Watersheds brought the trees, shrubs and wildflowers, along with staff, and laid out where everything should go. Stillpoint brought the people: One of the cooks and her brother, Sister Betty’s niece and four of Sister Pat’s siblings, along with Sister Pat herself. It just so happened to rain. Hard. Nevertheless, 12 people planted over 400 trees and shrubs the first day – laying them out, digging the holes, patting them down. The next day, an October Friday, it rained even harder. Sister Pat had to peel off soggy layers just to eat. But she and the cook, Jasmine, planted 400 wildflowers. Everything was mulched. With the downpour, no watering was required, at least! Watersheds, who cleaned everything up tickety-boo, said they had never seen a more efficient and skilled planting group and that it went faster than they ever could have imagined. 

What will this planting do? A multitude of things! As part of the Ontario hydro-electricity system, the Madawaska River has dams and generating stations along its length, all controlled in Toronto. Water levels can rise or fall a foot at a time. Those changing levels create extra erosion that the planting will help to protect. The roots will secure the soil, stabilizing the shoreline. 

The planting will also provide a healthy and beautiful natural habitat for wildlife from frogs to butterflies to songbirds. And it will contribute to improved water quality in the river by filtering runoff. With all the planting there will now be less lawn to mow which will save money and spew less pollution and carbon into the atmosphere. An added bonus of interrupting the  lawn before it reaches the shore is that geese will not be enticed to come up on the property and leave behind their offerings. 

When Sister Betty Berrigan wrote up the project for her St. Joseph Congregation, she said that the important care of the shoreline let Stillpoint “attend, in a concrete way, to our Chapter mandate.” Their 2016 congregational meeting (Chapter) focus was: “Our work is to sustain a covenant with each other and with the common good … relationships within the Congregation – relationships with Earth.” 

Sister Pat Amyot feels the same way, that the work reflects the Sisters of Providence 2015 Mission Statement: “...Sharing our spiritual, human and financial resources, we promote justice and peace for all creation.” 

Sister Pat sees the hand of Providence in the whole project. In prayer, the image of a flowing river – perhaps like the Madawaska – has come to her. The river has a strong undertow, pushing together the many channels of Providence. Those channels include Stillpoint’s guest, Denice the environmentalist; Watersheds.ca and the government ministry who responded; Sister Betty and the CSJ Congregation; the volunteers; and Sister Pat herself and her Providence Congregation. 
To Sister Pat, Providence did the arranging – all that was required was a yes. That yes brought not only the gift of a wonderful project, but personal health as well. “It is amazing how we are renewed by the environment,” says the gardener, composter and seed-saver. “All we have to do is our part.”

One person digging planting holes and the other putting sod into a wheel barrel.

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