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Faith Meets Sustainability at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

Comprehensive climate action. Sustainable agriculture. Wellness. These words may not have existed in common parlance in 1912 when the Sisters of Mercy founded Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, but their move to center stage since James Dlugos became president of the state’s only Catholic college in 2012 is fitting, given the primacy today’s Sisters commitment to healing the planet holds.

Located in Standish, just a half-hour northwest of Portland, Saint Joseph’s campus provides an idyllic setting for students wishing to explore sustainability in a local context. With easy pedestrian access to Sebago Lake, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, and Marine Science majors as well as Sustainability Studies minors can gain first-hand experience in pursuing their passions. This can be done by sampling the lake’s waters, investigating the network of trails outlying it, or heading out on a day trip to the nearby White Mountains in New Hampshire. 

Environment and Community at its Core     

Sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Saint Joseph’s mission statement echoes solidarity with its founders’ values, affirming it will “advocate for justice and peace in recognition of each person’s responsibility for the welfare of both humankind and the environment.”  

In Dublin, Ireland in 1831, Catherine McAuley created the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. She self-funded the construction of a shelter to house homeless girls and women, as well as a place to serve as a school for poor girls. Since its inception, the organization has spread worldwide, spawning independent congregations devoted to partnering with communities in tackling global issues such as education, health care, and, in particular, the environment. In 2020, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas celebrated the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home—an encyclical emphasizing creation care as a collective responsibility—by initiating the Mercy Earth Challenge, a year-long call to action designed to educate communities on sustainability.

For the better part of a decade, Saint Joseph’s has upheld Mercy values, honoring its pledge to actively promote sustainability through its Community and Sustainability Engaged Scholarship (CASE) initiative, which reaches out to prospective freshmen seeking to cultivate service and leadership skills through academics, sustainability, and community building. CASE scholars, who are awarded a $2,000 scholarship, commit to a minor in sustainability and community-themed coursework, as well as serving in the Eco-Reps student club and working at least two hours per week at the campus Community-Based Learning Office.

Director of the Office Kimberly Post notes many incoming first-year students, acutely aware of environmental issues, choose a path of study involving sustainability to prepare them for today’s high-demand “green-collar jobs.” Eco-friendly studies ultimately feed students’ passion for sustainability and ensure they can attain a bright future in the modern workforce.  

The Center for Sustainable Communities    

In addition to its academic programs focused on preparing students to become stewards of the environment, Saint Joseph’s has manifested its commitment to sustainability in large part through the efforts of the Center for Sustainable Communities. With interdisciplinary leadership, the Center has spearheaded efforts to commit to campus carbon neutrality by 2036 as well as to formulate and adopt the College’s ambitious Climate Action and Sustainability Plan —all part of upholding its pledge to make the campus a “living laboratory for sustainable solutions.” 

student kneeling at raised bed of pollinator garden which was a sustainability project
Caleb Gravel ’19 working at the Saint Joseph’s College of Maine pollinator garden (Photo: Kaitlynn Hutchins)

To this effect, the Pollinator Garden came about in 2019. The center’s co-coordinator Dr. Greg Teegarden, a biological oceanography professor in the Department of Sciences, joined forces with dozens of students—many of them CASE scholars— staff members from across campus, community members and Portland school-age children to create a garden that reconnects people with the sources of their food.  Food growth, however, depends on pollinators, which in recent times have been rapidly in decline. Given this reality, Teegarden and his team planned a garden project dedicated first and foremost to attracting and sustaining pollinators, which in turn promotes a robust harvest. The group’s success is demonstrated by Saint Joseph’s USA Bee Campus Affiliate designation in 2019, and also carries the honor of marking the first college in Maine to achieve certification.

Through the center’s efforts, the College has likewise garnered other sustainability awards, notably a STARS Silver rating in 2017 and inclusion in the 2018 edition of The Princeton Review’s Guide to 399 Green Colleges.

Agritourism Meets Education: The Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation

As part of an ongoing effort to support sustainable agriculture in Maine and promote local business partnerships, Saint Joseph’s launched the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation in September 2017. Funded by federal and state grants as well as generous private contributions, the $4 million institute undertook the construction of a quarter-acre hydroponic greenhouse, a food manufacturing incubator, a livestock barn, and a 3,400-square-foot commercial kitchen. SJC also used investor funds to transform the school’s Stone Barn into a an agritourism event space.

The institute’s visions have culminated in a series of Stone Barn Farm-to-Table dinners. Planned and orchestrated by chef Mary Paine, she delights in creating her own lists of providers from across the state and deciding on a weekly basis where she’ll hunt for which seasonal ingredients to be featured in a given meal. While tickets to the dinners tend to sell out quickly, Paine always reserves enough spots to offer places at the table to the farmers and other purveyors whose products she’s used in that evening’s meal, so she can spotlight them before the 250-person crowd.

Education is also a key goal of the institute. Hydroponic enterprise director Dr. Mark Green—a professor of sciences at the College—has expanded undergraduate offerings at St. Joseph’s by creating a Certificate in Hyrdoponic Culture, including course topics such as: Hydroponic Systems, Plant Growth Requirements, Starting a Hydroponic Growing Business, and Plant Physiology. All facets of the institute, then, provide hands-on learning for students, in addition to offering competency-based training opportunities for New Englanders seeking careers in the food industry. Saint Joseph’s former Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Executive Director of Mission-Aligned Business Peter Nielsen has also noted the institute collaborates in promoting the state’s food and beverage industry, as well as in addressing regional food insecurity.

Having studied at an institution where Catholic values, sustainability, and entrepreneurship conscientiously merge, Saint Joseph’s grads will enter the workforce with tangible skills to engage with communities and promote environmental awareness.    

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