In a small, square clearing cut into the edge of a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, cornfield, Sister Janet McCann has her congregation rapt. She wears a coral, plaid shirt and a necklace with the symbol of her order: a bleeding heart and cross. Grinning, she tells the assembly—seated on benches and lawn chairs, standing at the edges of the makeshift chapel, and spilling into the public park beyond it—that, in the interest of balance, she had asked her fellow sisters to help her find a scriptural passage that would support their opponents' point of view. It would go something like this, she says: "And God said, let corporations whose owners already have enough food to eat, enough water to drink, and enough money in the bank, continue to grow their wealth. Let them take farmland by eminent domain and dig a big hole in the earth. Then let gas flow through the pipe, disrupting the ecosystem that I so lovingly put in place." They didn't find any such passage in the Bible, she reports, to laughter and applause. Instead she quotes from Genesis, a passage about the gathering of the waters and the uncovering of the land, and the crowd finishes the line along with her: "And God saw that it was good." The day's gathering is an anti-pipeline protest of sorts, but it's also a religious ceremony. The people here don't just talk environment; they talk Creation.
Sister Janet is a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, an order of Roman Catholic sisters. The sisters' purpose today—to dedicate this land before Williams, the company building the pipeline, cuts through the nuns' property—is a bold one. Days before, Williams filed a motion in federal court requesting that they be allowed to take possession of the sisters' land ahead of schedule, to stop this very gathering: "It appears the Landowners are seeking to obstruct construction of the project ... by dedicating a 'prayer chapel' on the rights of way."
The "chapel" is the cleared-out square in the field. It has a wooden arbor and three walls of tall cornstalks. The back opens onto a municipal park, where anti-pipeline quilts are displayed on clotheslines. It's sunny and cloudless, and, with no shade in sight, the people gathered pop open giant golf umbrellas and plop into camp chairs. Buzzing dragonflies dive-bomb through air that smells of hot grass and sunscreen. A teenaged girl circulates with a plastic pitcher of ice water and Dixie cups.
The Adorers established a community here in 1925, about a mile from the banks of the Susquehanna River, where they worked the land. The nuns no longer work the fields themselves; they lease the fields they own to local farmers and sponsor a retirement community. But the land remains central to their spirituality—and when the pipeline company filed an application to build and operate the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline on the sisters' patch of earth, they resisted. Their spiritual practice includes abiding by a land ethic in which they define themselves as advocates of Earth who "cultivate a mystical consciousness" and respect "Earth as a sanctuary where all life is protected."
Another group of sisters, from the Loretto Community in rural Kentucky, have made the trip to Lancaster for the service. In 2014, the Loretto sisters successfully blocked the Bluegrass Pipeline, which was slated to cross their land. The Lorettos arrived in Lancaster the night before the dedication, and the two groups talked scripture and strategy over Bud Light and pasta salad on the patio at the Adorers' residence. The sisters from Kentucky emphasized how important it was for them to fight the pipeline on their own terms, in their own interest. For women who have spent their lives focused on the needs of others, this was a radical shift. "It was frankly one of the first times in our professional lives that we had not been givers and teachers, but people with common need with our neighbors," Sister Eleanor Craig says.
The Adorers hope to follow in the footsteps of their Loretto sisters—they're fighting the same pipeline company their Kentucky friends defeated.
The morning before the dedication, the square of cornfield didn't look like much: There were benches, a makeshift altar, a large sign displaying the Adorers' land ethic. But during the 90-minute ceremony, the space is transformed. The folks assembled pray, sing, play flutes and saxophones and guitars, tie ribbons onto ropes at the edge of the space to symbolize their blessings. Sister Sara Dwyer, another Adorer, stands before the group and says: "May we not seek merely to stop a pipeline, but to change a culture that is destroying Earth." Wind rustles the cornstalks, and a ripple of amens rises from the crowd.
Last October, just a few months after the prayer chapel's dedication, the sisters and their supporters returned to the space to sing and pray as construction of the pipeline began. When workers in hard hats reached the chapel, they picked up the benches and moved them out of the way, marking the right-of-way line with wooden stakes and pink flags. The group moved up the hill to sing next to the bulldozers.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.