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'We Are Forward Thinkers': Rochester's Sisters Of St. Francis On Cutting Edge Of Conservation

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A group of Minnesota women connected to the world's oldest form of Christianity are focused on the future.

Their efforts to protect the environment have received national attention.

WCCO-TV visited the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester for a rare look at how rich traditions are teaching a new generation about conservation.

For more than 60 years, their 116 acres have overlooked Rochester atop a scenic hill. Assisi Heights is the home to the Sisters of St. Francis, and to a secret they are happy to share: From solar panels to a sprawling paver patio.

"There's no pollutants running off onto to any sewer system," Sister Ramona Miller said. "We're educators by example in with we've able to do with our property here."

Their mission directs all decisions they make. Like many of the sisters here, Miller grew up on a Minnesota farm. The same concern she had for the farmland where she was raised has carried over into her Catholic faith, following the patron saint of ecology.

"Many are surprised that we are forward thinkers, but that's really the Franciscan spirit. It goes back to the 13th century of how St. Francis was innovative in his times, and we keep that same spirit going," Miller said.

For Sister Alice Thraen, that means sharing her bee-attitudes with others.

"In this bee apiary, I have three hives," Sister Thraen said. "Each hive has about 60,000 bees."

Assisi Heights once brought in outside beekeepers to pollinate their plants, until Sister Alice took it over herself.

"We have a lot of fruit trees, and so they go to the blossoms in the fruit trees," Thraen said.

Now, the sisters produce a few hundred pounds of honey every year.

"It's very good," Thraen said.

So popular, it's all spoken for before the season even starts. As for their solar panels, they went up five years ago as the largest installation in the southeast part of the state. The system generates about 20% of the property's electrical usage.

"That might not sound like a lot, but it's because we have such a very, very large building," Sister Marlene Pinzka said.

Their conservation efforts stretch inside that more the than 400,000-square-foot building, where a busy kitchen feeds the 100 sisters who live here. It is also used by the Mayo Clinic to prepare meals for its conference center.

"This hood ran from 6 in the morning until the last cook left and the stoves were turned off at night," Sister Pinzka said.

New sensors now mean the hood only runs at about 30% capacity.

"It senses the heat and only turns on as needed," she said. "Other restaurants in Rochester have now used the same technology."

Their work have has earned the sisters the Energy Star Award -- the largest multi-use building in the country to receive that recognition. They even converting the more than 6,000 lights to LED bulbs. The sisters share their conservation lessons through tours and community outreach, leaving a living legacy.

"Everything that we can possibly do to improve the environment in our small corner of the world," Sister Miller said.

There is also a Mayo Clinic connection to the sisters. It was Mother Mary Alfred Moes who started the Sisters of St. Francis and pushed Dr. William Mayo to start a hospital. In 1889, they opened St. Mary's Hospital, which eventually paved the way for the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

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