Paula Gonzalez, SC, Ph.D.
Learning from the Earth
-- for Simple and Sustainable Living
"Live simply, so that others may simply live."
That was a belief of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the foundress of the Sisters of Charity. Paula Gonzalez, SC, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Ohio, has taken that to heart, models its possibilities, and is joyously sharing the "good news" with others.
The seeds for her life's work were planted from her birth. Paula feels that she has been part of the Sisters of Charity since 1932 when she was born in a Sister of Charity hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico; later she was taught by them and received a scholarship to Mt. St. Joseph College in Cincinnati. Following her graduation at 19 years of age, she returned home to teach biology in a nursing school. While she had decided during her last year of college to become a sister, she delayed her entrance into the community, so that she could give back to her parents. They had made so many sacrifices in raising her and in seeing that she received a college education.
Paula entered the Sisters of Charity in 1954. Following her initiation into the community, she taught high school for five years before completing her masters and doctorate in biology at the Catholic University in Washington, DC. This prepared her for full-time teaching at Mt. St. Joseph from 1965-1975.
The first Earth Day in 1970 inspired Paula to think seriously about energy and environmental issues and about how to incorporate them into her biology classes at Mt. St. Joseph. Later, when a proposed nuclear plant received strong opposition, she realized that resistance alone can not solve energy problems -- or any problem for that matter. It is also vital to develop creative, life-sustaining alternatives.
La Casa del Sol In 1975, she switched to half-time roles as a teacher and as a free-lance lecturer until 1981. While affiliated with the Futures Awareness Center, she began a project now known as La Casa del Sol (House of the Sun), a 1,500 foot super-insulated, passive solar house. Using an old chicken coop as a base, this innovative building is a model for recycling used materials. Constructed by mostly inexperienced volunteers, who came together every Saturday from 1982-1985, it cost approximately $10 per square foot.
Before it was even completed, Paula and another Sister of Charity moved into it. Ever since then, they have been able to model an ecologically-sensitive and delightful lifestyle -- which is in marked contrast to consumeristic, disposable, and individualistic trends in the U.S.
EarthConnection A second major building project resulted in the 1995 opening of EarthConnection -- a center for learning and reflection about "living lightly" on Earth. This 21st century, solar-heated model of energy efficiency is home for programs, tours, and internships. Several summer "Greening Institutes" have addressed the role of the Christian, interfaith, and educational communities in restoring the balance within Earth's ecosystems. She firmly believes: "We have to reach the moral cores of people, as well as their brains."
For Paula, a highlight of her active and creative ministry was the timber-frame raising for this building. To see 3/4ths of a new building going up in one day, the fruit of many hands, was "thrilling!"
Bringing a chicken coop back to life was one way to mimic nature, which does not discard anything, but rather reuses and recreates the matter of life, continuously. For $16,000 dollars, money raised from selling used materials, twice a year, a wonderful model for an "intentional society" came into being.
Paula raises money by doing what she calls "above-ground mining" -- inviting people to "liberate" items in attics and garages, which are no longer being used, yet which are too good to throw away. People all around Cincinnati, including staff at the college, now know to always call her first if they have anything that is no longer needed. The 20th anniversary yard sale will be this spring (2000). To raise several thousands of dollars at each sale requires dedication and commitment: for it means collecting and sorting materials all year long.
Her life today is filled with giving conferences and retreats (she has given more than 1,350!), in which she explains and demonstrates the connections of everyday life with our deepest truths and spirituality as human beings in an interconnected world. She has also written a series on ecospirituality and developed audiotape minicourses on Earth-healing. Her writings have appeared in numerous and varied publications. Her life and work is also featured in many articles, such as "Catching the Spirit" in the Millennium Monthly.
One of her favorite approaches is to present the Our Father as "The Prayer of Jesus in an Ecological Age," so that others see this traditional prayer in a new light. Emphasizing the process notion of creation, she stresses how "we are all actors and actresses creating the world of today for tomorrow. The future is what people are choosing today," she stresses.
As she dreams about the future, Paula longs for enough time to do all that needs to be done. Never tiring, she suggests that this is possible because her personal spirituality is so embedded in her work. Her prayer and work are one: for helping to restore creation, being a co-creator with God, is a wonderful gift. She also knows how to relax, by listening to books on tape or by reading a good mystery.
Part of her spirituality is her garden, for she believes that it is very important to work in dirt, in order "to experience the miracle which is the universe." No matter how busy her days are, seeing life as "total mystery, as awesome" is part of a contemplative posture which enlivens and sustains her. Following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Ann Seton, Paula -- futurist, environmentalist, educator, gardener, and retreat director -- "lives simply," in sisterhood, "so that others may simply live."
Messages to Paula can be sent via Hill Connections.
Pictures -- thanks to Paula Gonzalez, SC