Get Thee to a Utility? Enterprising Nuns Strike Gas on the Grounds of Their Convent

UPDATED 04/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

The women of the Mount Saint Benedict priory in Erie, Pa., now in its 125th year, believe in self-sufficiency as a matter of principle. The 140 nuns now in residence work as teachers, nurses and day-care attendants, and until recently, thanks to the will of a local parishioner, owned $104,000 in stocks. But the sisters, like everyone else, were feeling the pinch of the energy crisis. It cost them $23,000 to heat their sprawling convent last year, and the future looked expensive—and drafty. Two years ago, however, a wildcatter had offered to finance exploratory drilling on the convent's 120-acre grounds in search of oil or natural gas. "We took a we'll-think-about-it position," says Sister Joan Chittister, 43, prioress of Mount Saint Benedict. "We didn't think we should be sitting on energy resources when they were so desperately needed, but we also didn't think we should be in the gas business."

Finally last fall the sisters arrived at a compromise. "I called a meeting," Sister Joan recalls, "and explained that if we could find gas ourselves we might be able to provide for our own energy needs and thus free up more gas for the outside community." They first voted to sell their stock to pay for drilling and tests. When the results were positive, the sisters had to decide whether to "risk the rest of their communal savings on piping, with no guarantee that the well would pay off. Last January they elected to gamble—and won. The well is now expected to provide gas for the convent for the next 25 to 35 years. "People ask us constantly if we think this was a miracle," says Sister Joan. "We don't. We have a commitment here to raising consciousness about world peace, conservation and the dangers of nuclear weaponry. To us, a miracle will be when we can all develop a sense of responsibility toward each other and the world we live in."

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