Seasons of Change
Located on 60 acres spread across Hiawatha and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center (Prairiewoods) feels both urban and yet a world apart.
For 25 years, this place has provided people of all beliefs, backgrounds and cultures opportunities to reflect on their relationship to the “Source of All Being,” earth, themselves and each other through experiences that explore the intersection of ecology, spirituality and holistic health.
Many have been refreshed, restored and revitalized by the landscape during that time. This past year, many of those individuals have had the opportunity to return the favor in-kind as the landscape experienced a transformation of its own following the derecho that swept through eastern and parts of central Iowa last August. The events that followed have not only underscored the resilience of this place, but also the community that has grown out of it.
The land that was to become Prairiewoods was purchased in 1962 by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), a Catholic community whose motherhouse – i.e. spiritual and administrative center – is located in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Several events led the FSPA community to establish a spirituality center here in 1996. At the center of the decision was a desire to develop a spiritual center that emphasized evolutionary consciousness, connection and care for creation – all tenets of the Franciscan tradition.
“We believe that the earth is sacred. It is the primary source of our reverence for God and a representation of who God is,” said Sister Nancy Hoffman, one of Prairiewoods’ six foundresses, who has been with the center since the beginning. “All land is holy. All land is sacred.”
Changes on the landscape, whether seasonal, sporadic or cyclical, are revered and respected here. But nothing could have prepared Prairiewoods’ staff and supporters for the transformation that was to come in August 2020.
Winds of change
Few green spaces in the greater Cedar Rapids area emerged from last summer’s derecho unscathed. Prairiewoods was no exception. Staff estimate approximately 750- 1,000 trees, including many of the property’s oaks, were lost in the storm, altering the landscape almost beyond recognition.
“It was just devastating,” said Prairiewoods Director Jenifer Hanson. “It’s hard to put it into words, even now.”
Prairiewoods includes approximately 70 acres of prairie, woodland and open space, two-and-a-half miles of walking trails, a labyrinth and several other outdoor spaces designed for personal introspection. In addition to providing space for programming, this land has become an increasingly popular publicly accessible green space in the greater Cedar Rapids metro, particularly during the pandemic. Locals and visitors alike frequent the trails, walking together in conversation and quiet contemplation. As such, restoration of the land itself and the ability to offer opportunities for continued recreation and reflection were front-of-mind for staff following the storm.
“It was super important to us to make the space safe so people could continue to come here,” said Land Care and Holistic Ecology Coordinator August Stolba, who leads Prairiewoods’ stewardship team.
Staff worked with subcontractors to coordinate much of the initial cleanup. But the response from the Prairiewoods community, locals and disaster relief volunteers from near and far, has been integral to the ongoing restoration of the landscape.
“We were stunned by how many people came [to help after the storm] and from how far away,” said another of Prairiewoods’ foundresses Sister Joann Gehling, who has been on staff at the center since it opened. “It was very humbling.”
Like all those who come to Prairiewoods, each person has their own reason for lending a hand on the land. Those who hold a special affinity for this place see it as an opportunity to give back to land that has provided so many with so much.
“When things are devastated, you have to have a safe place to go. Prairiewoods is
that place for so many people,” said Rick Sandstrom, a long-time stewardship volunteer at Prairiewoods. “There’s just a power, energy and sense of balance here. People take that with them when they go back to their lives and out into the community. After the storm, this community needed a place to get back in balance.”
While Prairiewoods moved swiftly to make its outdoor spaces safe and accessible, trust in the land has continued to guide the approach to stewardship here, both before and after the storm.
“We try to follow nature’s lead,” said Stolba.
“We use science, sustainable practices and what we know from experience to care for the land, but we don’t try to control it.”
“The land knows more than we do,” Sister Nancy added.
For many, the land’s ability to begin again serves as a reminder of their own ability to weather storms, especially now.
“I always thought of myself as a really resilient person,” said Hanson. “But for me, the derecho, that was it. I just felt the loss of that personal sense of resiliency so deeply. This past spring at Prairiewoods has been so impactful for me personally. The land is so resilient. It takes people longer.”
Peace & protection in perpetuity
The events of the past year have illustrated the character of this place, the people and community it represents. It’s also made a decision the sisters made a year prior all that more meaningful.
In 2019, after much internal discussion amongst its members, FSPA made the decision to permanently protect Prairiewoods in perpetuity by donating a conservation easement on approximately 48 acres of prairie, woodland and open space surrounding the center to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF). This easement was in process at the time of the derecho and was completed and recorded in November 2020, a few months after the storm.
“Rather than allowing all the damage from the storm to crush their spirit or lessen their resolve to protect the land, the sisters doubled down in their determination to ensure that it was permanently protected,” said Eastern Iowa Program Director Carole Teator. “Now, with the conservation easement in place, Prairiewoods will remain a place in the midst of a quickly developing area available to those seeking renewal and restoration in nature.”
“We thank you for coming today and we welcome you to come often, to walk the trails, to admire the strength of the trees, to engage with the residents, the denizens of prairie and woods,” said Prairiewoods Foundress Sister Betty Daughtery, now deceased, during her remarks at a ceremony celebrating FSPA’s decision to permanently protect the land on Oct. 4, 2019. “We invite you to listen to the wisdom coming from the land itself. It will teach us to be grateful for the gifts of each season.”