And then there were nun

Green energy, digital power add to local nuns' quiet life

"Creation sustains us and the respect we owe to our Earth," says Sister Maria Ahearn.

"Creation sustains us and the respect we owe to our Earth," says Sister Maria Ahearn.

For more information, visit Green energy, digital power add to local nuns' quiet life.

Reno’s Carmelite nuns don’t wear habits anymore. Seeing as they support themselves with printmaking—and old-school presses are famous for snagging clothes and maiming people—the sisters retired their woolen robes a long time ago.

Shedding the traditional garb was a gutsy move for their community, explains Sister Maria Ahearn, “but after awhile, [our attitude] was, ’No, this is who we are. This is how we live. Get used to it.’”

A native New Yorker who came to Reno in the ’70s, Ahearn is apt to wear cargo pants, sneakers and a tank top. She often rides her bike up nearby Driscoll Drive’s long, daunting hill. She skis, too, and snowboards.

An appreciation for the outdoors comes easily at the nuns’ 19-acre home in Southwest Reno, where the city and mountain views are jaw-dropping, and the sky seems big enough to sweep you away on a gust of wind. Then there’s the modern chapel designed by architect Brad Van Woert, with sunlit, floor-to-ceiling slices of glass that feel like they’re suspended right over the valley.

The sisters weren’t always this comfortable, mind you. The first few were broke, really, when they moved to Reno from Indiana in 1954. But their founder, the late Sister Anne of the Trinity (born Anne Elisabeth Clem) taught them to be progressive and limber—ready to shed old habits, so to speak, and embrace new technology.

Two years ago, that meant the addition of a massive network of solar panels tucked into a wooded part of the grounds. It’s well concealed and highly effective, generating far more power than the facility even needs.

“Everybody was so on board,” says Ahearn, adding that wind power was part of the discussion, too. “We had wanted to do this for a very long time, and then we got it from a grant [from NV Energy]. Once you do the math of this, who wouldn’t like it?”

The Carmelites are still on the grid. Their system generates energy, obviously, but actually sends it to the power company. NV Energy effectively stores it for the nuns and credits their account with a surplus, which they can then tap into during leaner months.

Our Lady of the Snows and the Reno Christian Fellowship also use solar energy, and the approach is gathering a strong enough following in Nevada that a popular rebate program will one day taper off altogether. Truckee Meadows Community College is home to one of the latest rebate installations, which now number around 1,800 statewide.

Tapering off is actually the whole point, says NV Energy program manager John Hargrove.

“The program was designed to create an industry that can sustain itself once the rebates are [gone],” he explains.

The 14 local Carmelites, for their part, are certainly self-sustaining. Their solar setup “powers just about everything,” says Sister Clorinda von Stockalper—or just Cloe, as she’d rather be called—a pro musician who hails from Switzerland, Scotland and England, for the record.

“We thought it would be a good idea, because there’s so much sun,” she says, in an accent that’s entrancing and velvety enough to bear mention here. “And it’s definitely made a difference in our lives, financially and otherwise.”

A recent flight over Phoenix gave Ahearn yet another eyeful of solar grids. Plus, she’ll never forget the wind farms she saw en route to a pilgrimage in Spain.

“People are taking it seriously,” she says, and she sees Reno’s new single-stream recycling program as yet another sign of progress.

Green living certainly makes sense in a spiritual context—especially a quiet, contemplative one like the Carmelites’.

“We are part of creation,” Ahearn will tell you, “and creation sustains us and the respect we owe to our Earth.”

This solar panel helps power Carmel of Reno.

Photo/Allison Young

For some Native Americans, she says, “the Great Spirit lives in the earth. For them, the earth is their religion. And in all our traditions, it’s, ’Moses, take off your shoes.’ The ground that we stand on is holy.”

Pressing matters

In some ways, the electricity the nuns generate has a full-circle effect, seeing as it now powers their state-of-the-art digital printing press—a machine that may as well be their bread and butter.

The equipment “is a lot of fun,” says Ahearn, who compiles newsletters and other publications for the group, “because it just goes.”

Actually, it’s downright Star Trek-caliber if you compare it to the sisters’ older printing system, which began in a garage apartment and later consumed the monastery’s basement. Its remnants are still there—sprawling and labyrinthine amid a network of floor-to-ceiling shelves.

Maria still knows how to set type the old way—by hand, backwards and upside-down. Not that she’d like to turn back time; the process is a snap now, thanks to programs such as InDesign.

When it comes to print jobs, the nuns are especially well known for their ever-changing collection of greeting and holiday cards, many of which are designed by Sister Sa Ra, an experienced painter from Korea. Sister Marie-Celeste Fadden, who died in 2005, was another established artist within the group—so accomplished, in fact, that she was reportedly in one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first juried shows (the other guy selected that year from Pennsylvania, Fadden’s home state, was Andrew Wyeth. The Andrew Wyeth).

With Fadden’s help, the sisters’ cards became a hit, and now around 100,000 come off the press each year.

Their themes are both secular and religious, and abstract and specific—full of color-rich saints, landscapes, flowers, animals, automobiles, buildings, and virtually everything else in creation. And they are objectively gorgeous.

You can even buy one that depicts St. Teresa of Avila, who founded the entire reformed Carmelite Order with another Spanish saint, Saint John of the Cross. She is dancing in the image, which was taken from one of Fadden’s original works. It is simple and stunning, full of bold lines and warm colors, and modeled after the movements of a professional dancer who visited the monastery.

“It was an effort to show that the nuns weren’t mean old people,” Ahearn says, her gazed fixed on the painting. “Hey, we’ve got a life. This isn’t half-bad!”

Sister Mary—a sprightly, absolutely tiny older woman—is also around to lighten the mood.

“Would you like something?” she asks as she pushes herself around the building’s lounge area with the help of a food cart.

A tub of ice cream is perched on top.

She asks again.

“I mean a beer or a highball or something?”

It’s not yet noon. She seems serious.

“I tease!” she exclaims a second later.

Years ago, this bit of dynamite in a small package planted virtually all of the trees on the now heavily-wooded property, scaling ladders and later watering each one by hand. The trees seem too old, too well-established to have been seeded in her lifetime, but they were. Like Maria, Mary has been here more than 40 years.

“I’d always tell the sisters when I was growing up, ’Talk to people,’” she says. “To be friendly. Then I came to Reno, and I can’t stop.”