LANCASTER, Penn. — More than 500 people gathered in a hot and dusty Pennsylvania cornfield yesterday afternoon to join the Catholic sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ for the dedication of a new outdoor chapel, built on land about to be seized from them by a corporate developer planning to build a natural gas pipeline.
The chapel is an outdoor arbor built by a local craftsman, Jon Telesco, and contains an altar surrounded by wooden benches. (The tradition of building “booths” in the wilderness to mark prophetic presence has a long history in biblical tradition, including the “brush arbors” used by enslaved African Americans for worship.) The sisters dedicated the sacred space on Sunday by reading from their community’s land ethic adopted in 2005.
“As prophets,” read Sisters George Ann Biscan and Helene Trueitt, “we reverence Earth as a sanctuary where all life is protected; we strive to establish justice and right relationships so that all creation might thrive.”
Lancaster County, the heart of “Amish country,” is in the path of the proposed Transco-Williams Atlantic Sunrise Project, a 42” transmission greenfield gas line planned to carry fracked gas to the eastern seaboard primarily for export, according to The Roanoke Times.
The pipeline would clear-cut a 35-mile-long corridor through Lancaster County’s forests and farmland and pass directly through eight historically significant Native American cultural sites. The pipeline’s right-of-way would dissect more than 50 preserved farms and at least 40 scenic waterways along its 188 miles through the center of Pennsylvania, from the Marcellus Shale region southward and ending in Lancaster County.
“If completed, it will go through more than 350 waterways, 220 wetlands and would permanently fragment over 44 interior forests,” said Malinda Harnish Clatterbuck, a local Mennonite pastor and cofounder of Lancaster Against Pipelines. “… We believe the collective damage to the Susquehanna watershed (and therefore the Chesapeake Bay) is irreparable, and that the state needs to intervene for the future of clean water and clean waterways in Pennsylvania.”
The Adorers were joined by members from other women's religious communities, including the Sisters of Loretto from Kentucky, who won their own battle against Transco-Williams in 2014.
“Resistance starts immediately when something unwelcome and unjust shows up in your front yard,” said one of the sisters of Loretto from Kentucky, “like when a man we didn't know walked onto our property and asked how much money it would take to let him build a pipeline through our land — land that has sustained us since 1824. Resistance is immediate.”
Residents with Lancaster Against Pipelines have been working with the Adorers to protect the Susquehanna watershed and the 1,100 families who live in the pipeline’s “incineration zone,” in the event of catastrophic failure. A week ago just 10 miles away, a Pennsylvania utility worker was killed when a gas line leak led to an explosion.
“This stand is not some sort of symbolic resistance. They understand that this fight is for real, and we are not going away,” said Mark Clatterbuck, a cofounder of Lancaster Against Pipelines.
The chapel dedication took place three days after Transco-Williams Group sought an injunction in federal court to seize the sisters’ land immediately by eminent domain and thwart the chapel dedication.
On Thursday, the company submitted a 45-page emergency motion to federal district judge Jeffrey Schmehl in an attempt to take immediate possession of the property and get permission to deploy U.S. Marshals on the nuns and “any third parties authorized by the sisters to be on the property.” The next hearing is July 17.
“That’s why they forced these sisters into federal court this past week,” Malinda Harnish Clatterbuck said, “demanding the right to seize this land before today in a desperate effort to prevent this dedication ceremony from ever taking place. And yet, here we are.”
The sisters, local residents, and statewide organizers plan regular interreligious prayer vigils at the chapel until they win in their land defense efforts. And if Transco-Williams demolition crews come, then they will pray in front of the bulldozers.
Members of Lancaster Against Pipelines have already established a site in nearby Conestoga, Penn., where they are defending the Conestoga River against a pipeline crossing by Transco-Williams. Residents are prepared for the fight against this extensive pipeline network, which includes hundreds of water crossings, to be the next hotspot of land defense against overreach by the fossil fuel industry, similar to the defense against the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines.
“‘Activism’ is a word we don't use,” Malinda Harnish Clatterbuck said. “We are residents protecting our land. We are residents protecting the health and safety of our community. We are residents active in our democracy. This is our civil duty. This is what we must do for justice.”
Following the chapel dedication, several sisters were interviewed by local media who expressed surprise that sisters would protest in this way. One commented wryly that the media must not be familiar with the land defense led by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ around the world.
In Brazil, these Catholic sisters are protesting hydroelectric dams on the Tapajos River. In Guatemala, they are resisting a controversial gold mine in La Puya. In Liberia, five of their community were murdered by soldiers in the army of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor during a civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead.
Now, the Adorers of the Sacred Blood, are facing off against Transco-Williams, the company that plans to construct a pipeline that bisects land the order owns and where 20 members live. The nuns say this is a violation of their sacred vows, which they have taken equally with commitments to simplicity, chastity, and prayerful obedience.
“This is not a political act,” said Sr. Janet McCann, ASC. “This is a spiritual act. We are people of faith.”