Nuns, Farmers, and Enchanted Earth at the Sinsinawa Mound
Is it the church bells ringing in the bean patch, or is there a deeper enchantment sounding from the soil?
It’s late summer at the Sinsinawa Mound, a Dominican congregation of Catholic nuns located in the Driftless region where Wisconsin meets Iowa and Illinois. I’m helping pick the last harvest of green beans as I hear the church bells begin to chime. Midday.
This wonder, or enchantment, I feel standing on Sinsinawa’s grounds is loaded with its own history and implications, both spiritual and material. At the Mound, surrounded by women committed to their land, I observe an opportunity for a progressive strain of enchantment, a means of dismantling patriarchy in our agricultural systems. That process requires a reconciliation of the Mound’s history, as well as a commitment to a just and sustainable future.
The Mound itself is a geological feature of the Driftless region, not an Indigenous effigy as the name might imply. By the time Sinsinawa was founded by Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, an Italian-born pioneer priest, in 1847, much of the Native American—likely Meskwaki or Ho Chunk—populations had been displaced from the area by fur traders and other European settlers. Yet, the Indigenous history is very much present on the land, even in the name itself. Sinsinawa is a Meskwaki word, loosely translated as “rocky in the middle.”
I look up at the tree-covered Mound from the fields below, and I know the great beauty I witness today must be understood within the context of its painful history. Many sisters at Sinsinawa know this too, recognizing that preserving the beauty and integrity of their 450 acres involves both social reparation and ecological healing.
“The Dominican mission has always been centered around seeking truth and right relationship,” Sustainability Coordinator, Sister Christin Tomy, explains. “So, it’s not hard to see, especially in this time of great ecological crisis, responding to the needs of the land is one facet of seeking right relationships.” During the past few years, the Mound has made greater commitment to its land ministry—working on prairie restoration projects, solar panel installations, rotational grazing plans, and a collaborative farm. “There’s something in listening to what this land was and wants to be,” Sister Christin tells me. “I’m convinced that it’s a deeply spiritual process.”
That healing, that listening, that enchantment, if you will, is something that Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun of the twelfth century, called viriditas. Loosely translated as “greenness,” it is, like most italicized Latin words, a bit more complicated than that. Viriditas refers to a unifying force of life which relates all members of creation to the divine. It is also a quality of justice, as Hildegard employs it.
Hildegard was a mystic, a prolific writer, and an unconventional political force in her time. Her prophetic visions concerning the interconnectedness of creation, among other things, were captured by medieval artists in painted illuminations. Learning about Hildegard, I felt I had found some sort of link between then and now. Viriditas, like the study of ecology, is relational, both physically and temporally. And it was these relationships that inspired me to pull together Hildegard’s medieval illuminations with images from the Sinsinawa Mound archives and photos from this past summer to create the collages that illustrate this piece. They reveal the legacy of women on this land, another iteration of the agricultural tradition, cultivating new life to sustain our own.
Still, some argue that we live in an age marred by disenchantment—a world that struggles for meaning. An early proponent of that view was Max Weber, the German sociologist who diagnosed the “disenchantment of the world” in 1917. He described the secular and scientific character of modern Western society after the Enlightenment as contrary to the “enchanted” view of the world which preceded it, a paradigm in which worldly phenomena were explained by the workings of spirits, magic, or the presence of the divine. Such spiritually rich worldviews— what we may now call animism or pantheism—were often dismissed as “primitive” traditions and seen as evidence of backwardness. Still, in the wake of the devastation of World War I, Weber agonized over the costs of Western “progress.”
At the Mound, however, enchantment, or this need for spiritual reconciliation, persists. The area’s Indigenous inhabitants found meaning here long before Father Samuel Mazzuchelli and the early Dominican sisters set down roots in this place. The Sinsinawa sisters acknowledge that they are settlers on occupied land and they see their labors as part of a larger project toward social justice. It is work, as Sister Christin says, that goes “hand in hand with the work of decolonization, the work of owning and accepting and repenting our history of genocide and displacement, the brutalization of both people and the land. And I think, as someone of settler descent, that’s part of the work for me, and part of the healing.” The spiritual process of making right relations requires not only “listening to the land” but also building relationships with Native tribes, offering reparations, and fostering deep respect for all members of creation.
Crouching in the bean patch at the Sinsinawa Mound, I feel that something—call it enchantment, viriditas, or just a good dose of sunshine after a long quarantine—all around me. The sisters, and the farmers, seem to feel it too.
“Ever since the Sinsinawa community was founded, farming was part of life here. And in the beginning, that was just part of surviving on the frontier,” says Sister Christin. Founded in 1847, Sinsinawa was in many ways a frontier congregation. For decades, the sisters produced their own food, managing extensive orchards, gardens, dairy herds, and chickens.
Sinsinawa’s agrarianism took on new significance in the decades after World War II. During the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, Sinsinawa sisters founded the Churches’ Center for Land and People (now the Food, Faith, and Farming Network). They also began writing a Land Stewardship statement to outline their values concerning the land and strategies to support their local farming communities. The updated version of that statement continues to guide the Mound’s land ministry today.
These days, the majority of Sinsinawa farmland, approximately 200 acres, is managed by a local organic farmer, Bernard “Bernie” Runde, to whom the congregation leases the land. The sisters still cultivate a diversity of crops to supplement meals served at the Mound, and the remainder of agricultural land is offered to beginning growers as part of the collaborative farm.
“I think reclaiming that agricultural history is part of our story, and continuing to do it in a way that’s appropriate for our modern context, and is sustainable and forward-looking, is a part of what we’re trying to do to respect the spirit of the land,” Sister Christin tells me as we walk toward the fields together. The spirit of the land, and of the Dominican mission, also manifests in partnerships growing at the collaborative farm.
Since 2017, the Sinsinawa Mound Collaborative Farm provides land, equipment, and infrastructure necessary for beginning organic growers to establish their own successful enterprises. So far, the vast majority of farmers the program has served are women. In fact, this year, all lead farmers at Sinsinawa identify as women and/or queer.
It’s an unusual partnership, some may say—nuns and farmers. But in many ways, these women live in similar worlds. Both operate in male-dominated, patriarchal systems—the Catholic Church and U.S. agriculture, respectively. As nurturers and caretakers of the land, they both affirm and transcend stereotypical feminine roles. Nuns live in sisterhood. These farmers work in a cooperative. And yet they also carry the Western masculine legacy of rugged outdoor labor on, and with, the land.
“I think it makes sense, having this community of sisters starting a farm,” Christin tells me as we overlook a patch of flowering buckwheat, a cover crop working to amend the soil. “It’s not like we started the collaborative farm saying, hey, let’s make a farm for women, but there’s something about the approach—that even when we talk about sustainable farming, we use the language of relationship—that I think has attracted women, typically more than men.”
What should we make of this relationship between religious and lay women working the land? It’s certainly poetic, but I think it’s more than that. Their relationships—with one another and with the land—point to a new era of enchantment, one that promotes sustainability and justice. Among the flocks of farmers in the Driftless is Andie Donnan. She, along with her partner, Ashley Neisis, is in her third year growing vegetables at the Sinsinawa Mound. Together, they manage an acre plot, Sandhill Farm. As Andie describes it, “We’ve created our own space—this acre—our own ecology, our own little world.”
She puts the collaborative farm in context. The Driftless region is dominated by monoculture farms that grow single cash crops, and even when that monoculture is organic and family-owned, as Andie says, the farming “loses some of its beauty.” Andie and Ashley have grown over 40 varieties of vegetables in their plot, a diversity in which they take pride.
And as for working in a collaborative of women? “Maybe that’s happenstance,” she says. “But it is special. It’s like, oh yeah, we’re all women and we’re all doing this really awesome thing. But food and machinery doesn’t hold gender. Culture creates gender around those things. You know, men use tractors and tools, and they build—blah di blah blah. Right? That’s what we’ve all been told. We need to reshape our framework. And that’s why what we’re doing is special—just so people can know and see.”
Sister Christin agrees. “Yes, the farms around here have been managed by men historically. It’s not something I think about consciously all the time, but I do notice it, even in the way that other people describe what we’re doing here. They call it ‘gardens’—’How are your gardens doing?’ So, there’s this struggle in wanting to be seen as legitimate farmers. It’s frustrating, but I’m also okay with it because it shows that we’re breaking the mold.”
The collaborative farm recognizes the barriers to land access and capital, as well as the struggle for credibility that women, and many other underrepresented groups, still face when working to make their way as farmers. Breaking these barriers makes them newly visible, especially to those who still imagine Midwest farming as a white man’s prerogative.
Farm Manager at the time, Sara Mooney, picks beans as she remarks, “I love that women are taking a more visible role in agriculture, but honestly I don’t think it’s anything new. Now, we’re just getting some credit for feeding the world. Do you want to make it precious that a woman is doing this? No. It’s just normal.”
And like any farmer, Andie Donnan is proud of her work this season. Standing by her rows of glistening brussel sprouts, she tells me, “I’m proud of what Ash and I are doing because we know that it’s a part of the circle of a healthy life, mentally and physically.” I hope Hildegard would be proud too. Hildegard’s visions of viriditas superimpose themselves on this Driftless landscape. I see it in the dance of morning fog between brussel sprout stalks and in the satisfying squirt of a late-summer tomato. I see it in the partnerships between these growers—nuns and farmers, past and present.
That’s not to say that any of this is easy. The Sinsinawa Mound is not immune to the effects of Covid-19. This October, management made the difficult decision to pause many of the land ministry efforts. The commitment to such a healing process, to viriditas, relies on fierce community participation, and frankly, on funding – both of which have been diminished because of the pandemic. The full extent to which this decision will affect operations at the Collaborative Farm is uncertain. With much seriousness, Sister Christin tells me, “We don’t have it in our bones, we don’t know yet what this commitment takes.”
Nevertheless, tomatoes ripen, caterpillars inch, sheep nibble, weeds spread. Oh, how the weeds spread. The season changes, passing into a time of quiet and frost on the land. And the sisters and farmers can look to a new year of healing—and maybe even health—at Sinsinawa.
This research is funded by UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and the Single Step Foundation and the Women & Wellbeing in Wisconsin & the World (4W) Initiative.
All collages that appear in this essay are by the author and used with permission.
Featured Image: “June in the Bean Patch, 1947/ Hildegard’s Wheel of Life.” Collage by the author. Photo media courtesy of the Sinsinawa Mound Archives.
Margaux Crider is a master’s student in the Agroecology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her visits to the Sinsinawa Mound and Collaborative Farm are part of her ongoing thesis research, “Catholic Ecofeminism and the (Re)Enchantment of Agroecology.” Contact.