Land as Sanctuary

by | Mar 1, 2021 | 0 comments

  • Charles McLimans in the assembly room on the main level of the monastery. Photo by Ian DeGraff.
  • CEO Charles McLimans. Photo by Ian DeGraff.
  • Sister Mary David Walgenbach in the garden. Photo by Nick Wilkes.
  • Photo courtesy of MG&E.

After Charles McLimans moved back to Madison in 2017 with his partner, he was in search of a faith home. They’d been parishioners at a church where they felt welcome in Milwaukee, but were doubtful they would fit in with a Madison Diocese led by conservative Bishop Robert C. Morlino. 

“I ran into Steve Zwettler, a teacher at Holy Name,” remembered McLimans. “Father Steve married a woman and continued his priestly ministry through hospice care, and was also leading services at Holy Wisdom He told me he was presiding and preaching the next Sunday and invited me to attend the service.”

Ecumenical Worship Community

When Charles arrived at the service, he and his husband felt immediately welcomed. Holy Wisdom’s ecumenical worship community and its multi-denominational approach include men and women as leaders, inclusive language in its homilies, and church members who wear nametags bearing rainbow ribbons. 

“Holy Wisdom has a long history of being intentionally welcoming, including welcoming the LGBT community,” said Charles. “When you enter the monastery you will see engraved above the entrance ‘that all may be one.’ The sisters believe that, and it’s why they are known for their hospitality. The Rule of St. Benedict states that we must welcome each person as Christ, that each guest should be welcomed just as if that person was Christ, without judgement.”

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Now serving as the CEO of Holy Wisdom, the role is only the latest chapter in McLimans’ long relationship with the Catholic faith. He grew up in the Church and came from a large family. His mother joked that if God gave her so many children, the least she could do is give one back as a priest or a nun. He explains that it is a great source of pride to have a child as a faith leader in the church. It’s why he served as an altar boy and was paid five dollars for playing the organ at services, something he remembers as a lot of money to a fourth grader.

“I had no notion of being gay at that age,” he said. “I suppose there was something in me, but I also believe that LGBT people have a heightened sensitivity to spirituality, even if they have been abused and rejected by the institutional church. I’m so fortunate to have had mentors and teachers who were priests and sisters who were wonderful guides through my life.”

He attended Holy Name Seminary on Madison’s west side for high school, which is now an apartment building and offices named Holy Name Heights. He spent four years in college seminary, a year studying with the Dominicans, and with only two days before he planned to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, he faced serious doubts about the existence of God.

“I was still discovering my sexuality and had questions about the Catholic Church—which said then, and still says in doctrine—that homosexuality is oriented toward evil. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Even Pope Francis is trying to create a more welcoming space.”

Charles chose to apply his faith through his worldly work in nonprofits and stayed committed to the concept of servant leadership. That calling led him to volunteer with the Illinois hunger relief organization, Loaves and Fishes, where he eventually became the director. In Madison he served as President and CEO of the River Food Pantry for three years, including during the first four months of the COVID pandemic. Meanwhile, when Holy Wisdom’s former CEO and Prioress, Sister Mary David Walgenbach, OSB, announced she would retire at 80 years old, monastery leaders asked Charles if he might consider applying for the role.

“I could hear God saying to me, ‘This is where I need you to serve.’” said Charles. “I’m still involved with River Food Pantry. I could justify the change in that I’m not leaving River, I’m just switching hats. I’m proud of their team and the work they are doing as the leading hunger relief organization in the community. In my position at Holy Wisdom, I’m part of a mission of weaving, prayer, hospitality, justice, and care for the Earth into a shared way of life. Here I get to be a part of that on a daily basis.”

Land Management and Restoration

Caring for the Earth has always been a part of the history and mission at Holy Wisdom. The land includes over 130 acres on the northwest side of Lake Mendota that provides a view of the Capitol and is bordered by the North Mendota Wildlife Prairie Unit. For many years the sisters have grown most of their own food and enjoyed the outdoors for meditation and contemplation. It wasn’t until around 20 years ago that their efforts shifted from groundskeeping to deeper land management and restoration.

“Once they started to look at the benefits of prairie restoration and reducing runoff, they became aware of how rainwater moves and how it moves soil from the land that was rented to farmers,” said Dr. Amy Alstad who serves as director of land management and environmental education at Holy Wisdom. “They looked at Lost Lake which is a 10,000 year-old glacial lake that used to be 10 acres, but shrunk in the 90s due to topsoil filling up the lake. They did a major restoration to restore it to its original size and shape. It’s a beautiful waterway now, and that experience led to an understanding of the flow and balance of water and the land.”

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In the woods to the east of the monastery building hosts one legacy of the former agricultural use of the land: an aging barn that is now home to a pair of great horned owls. There are eastern bluebird nesting boxes as well as bee hives maintained by retired University of Wisconsin entomologist David Hogg. Instead of corn or soybeans, you’ll find native prairie plants, such as milkweed, that attract monarch butterflies in the summer—and the rare wood lily they hope to protect from grazing deer.

The restoration work takes many hands. Volunteers work to remove invasive species and gather and spread prairie seeds. Alstad estimates there is a community of around 200 regular volunteers who collect seeds, maintain trails, and survey the species on the land.

Personal Healing and Inclusivity

“One thing we hear over and over is how visitors to this space are deeply touched by it,” said Alstad. “It does something special for them. It’s not just for prairie restoration but personal restoration. We’re committed to putting equal weight and emphasis on the restoration and growth and healing of both the ecology and the people in this space. That’s what sets us apart. We have a place where you’re welcome to stop and enjoy and bathe in the silence and contemplative beauty in your experience here.”

This history of a commitment to providing a welcoming space extends to the hospitality they show to people in their services. Historian Dick Wagner has attended services there for many years and points to the Solidarity Sunday services in October that began in the mid-1990s. It’s  an example of how Holy Wisdom extends the Benedictine rule of welcoming to include “solidarity with their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Sisters and Brothers” in a solidarity prayer.

“A decade ago, I interviewed a half dozen gay folks attending Sunday Assembly, and some key themes were the open table fellowship and sense of an inclusive community,” said Wagner. “There have been gay officiants leading services at the monastery, and gays and lesbians and a transperson have performed other ministerial or liturgical roles for services. Many homilies are LGBTQ inclusive.”

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The monastery has hosted same-sex weddings, an LGBT-focused spirituality retreat in 2011, gay couples in their newsletter, and gay- and lesbian-identified monastery staff. Beyond the visible evidence of inclusivity, the message of the church is focused on teaching how Christ was an example of unconditional love for others, regardless of political or religious affiliation. Striving to live Christ’s example through small acts of courtesy is key to how their religious community works to bridge differences and answer some of the questions people have about their faith and how to practice it in day-to-day life.

“I would like people to know that Holy Wisdom has leaders in our organization as well as many members of the Sunday Assembly worship community who are LGBTQ,” said McLimans. “It is a welcoming space for those who are searching and questioning. Questioning your faith means you care, and you are trying to find deeper meaning in it. A lot of faith is discovered through doubt.”

Open to the Public

The four miles of trails at Holy Wisdom are open to the public and have had more activity during the COVID crisis. Oak savanna, woodlands, wetlands, and rolling prairie are available for hiking and snowshoeing. Donations to the Friends of Wisdom Prairie support trail maintenance and prairie restoration.

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