Sister Judy Donovan, center, looks over plans for nature trails Thursday at the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Lyon convent at 80 Garland Road in Winslow, with Peter Garrett, right center, and Michael Heavener, left center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WINSLOW — Fundraising is underway for Saint Joseph’s Nature Sanctuary, a planned nature preserve and trail system along the Sebasticook River on four acres owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon.

The effort has raised $20,000 since the campaign launched in November. The goal is $36,000.

The convent of 14 Roman Catholic sisters has owned the land behind 80 Garland Road in Winslow since 2014, but their predecessors have been in Maine for more than 115 years, starting when six sisters arrived from Lyon, France, and began an enduring legacy of service.

Today, the sisters face a new reality: They are in their 80s and 90s and can no longer volunteer their time actively running local schools, day cares and hospitals.

After the COVID-19 pandemic began, Sister Judy Donovan said the sisters had to ask themselves how they could still serve their community. After some reflection, they landed on a solution in their own backyard.

Their meeting house at 80 Garland Road sits on four acres that run from the road to the bank of the Sebasticook River. Donovan said she and the other sisters had never stepped foot off their manicured strip of lawn right behind the house.


“We had no idea what we had there,” Donovan said.

The sisters ventured down to the river, cleared through the overgrown branches and brambles, and found the area to be teeming with lilacs, lilies and heirloom fruits, including blueberries and raspberries.

They consulted Maine master naturalists and learned the land was also the northernmost place where rare ironwood trees, white oaks and five species of fern can be found.

Donovan said the sisters felt “called” to do something meaningful for the community with the grounds. They began to host community partners for strategic meetings beginning in November 2021.

The sisters heard from representatives with Mid-Maine Permaculture on how to restore their clipped green lawn to its natural state.

They also spoke with Peter Garrett of Kennebec Messalonskee Trails about the possibility of a trail system going through their backyard along the river bank.


They also invited input from representatives of the Winslow Parks & Recreation Department, the Winslow Agriculture Commission and others.

A coalition of partners has formed to pursue the project and they began by imagining how the land could be transformed into Saint Joseph’s Nature Sanctuary, a community haven for education and spirituality.

While they waited for natural flora to reinhabit the land, the community partners set about organizing a slate of skill-sharing workshops. Mostly on Zoom, the workshops are led by one of the coalition’s experts on topics ranging from collecting rainwater to basic gardening skills.

Workshops next year are expected to bring participants onto the land. Some of the scheduled classes include snowshoeing to map out a trail system, poison ivy eradication by the river and raspberry tending. The workshops are free and happen once a month.

Donovan said while transforming the land, she was struck by how similar the philosophy behind gardening was to her own Christian outlook. She and the sisters were told to stop mowing their lawn, listen to the land and observe it through all four seasons to see where plants want to grow.

“You just take the world as it is,” she said, “and cooperate with it.”


The sisters’ mission is inspired in part by Pope Francis’ 2015 book “Laudato Si,” an encyclical that calls for Catholics to consider the Earth as their neighbor. Part of being a citizen of the world, he said, is to care for our common home. Donovan said she and her fellow sisters felt “called” to change their habits and reflect on how they could contribute.

“You can’t save the world, but you can save where you are,” permaculture expert Ellen Paul said at a meeting of the partners this month.

A small building would host workshops run by the sisters and naturalists. The 26-by-32-foot structure would also be home to Winslow’s Girl Scouts, who have been convening at the sisters’ meeting house on Garland Road since May 2021.

The building is to be open for three seasons, which is especially important for the spring, when bugs and mud often preclude people from fully enjoying the outdoors. Donovan said organizers are particularly focused on accessibility, to allow children and those with limited mobility to use the space.

Donovan said she hopes the community partners will reach their $36,000 goal by this spring so they can “build as soon as the Maine weather will allow it,” and open in the summer.

She said the money will also go toward creating a trail system by the river and educational signs.

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