116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In August of 1994, six Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration stood among 70 acres of woods and prairie in Hiawatha, trying to envision its use to connect with the earth and its creator.
An earlier “farm committee” from the Catholic religious order thought small, never imaging just how big their reach could be.
But in 1996, the doors opened to Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, at 120 E. Boyson Rd., which currently has a staff of 15, more than 100 volunteers, and an annual budget in the $900,000 range, according to director Jenifer Hanson, 59, of Cedar Rapids. As a sponsored ministry, she said the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration provide “significant” funding, with other revenue coming from services and programs Prairiewoods hosts, and through fundraising for the small nonprofit organization.
Open to anyone, Prairiewoods is home to the Center, the main building described as “the heart” of the complex, meeting and workshop spaces, retreats, holistic services, and overnight accommodations for groups or solo reflection.
The public is free to roam the outdoor spaces, including 2.5 miles of trails, a Cosmic Walk representing the story of the universe, outdoor and indoor labyrinths, a Healing Garden for quiet reflection, and the Garden of Eat’n, with produce free for the picking.
The site is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a yearlong Jubilee that begins and ends with its largest annual program, Spirituality in the 21st Century, founded in 2001. The launch will be online via Zoom April 30 and May 1, and the concluding conference is planned for next spring.
What: Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center
Where: 120 E. Boyson Rd., Hiawatha
25th Jubilee launch: Spirituality in the 21st Century: Flaring Forth into Fullness of Life
When: 7 to 9 p.m. April 30 and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 1, online via Zoom
Speakers: Thomas Berry biographers Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology; eco-philosopher David Abram, founding director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics; author Kathleen Rude; music and lyrical poetry from Sara Thomsen
Prairiewoods online: prairiewoods.org/
The Spirituality event founders ”really wanted for Prairiewoods’ mission to help people to understand that we are evolving in our consciousness about creation, about the divine, about our relationship with each other and our own interior spirituality,” said retreats coordinator Laura Weber, 55, of Cedar Rapids. “So they wanted to invite speakers who would really help extend and expand our mission to the community at large. …
“Over the years, we've been very fortunate to have some cutting-edge theologians and spiritual authors, writers, poets, musicians — people who really do understand this nexus of spirituality and ecology, and how that has a profound impact on the earth. …
“We think that it's actually the perfect way to start a year of celebration for our 25th anniversary,” Weber said. “ … I hope people celebrate how awesome it is to be part of God's creation.”
In between the conferences are various parties, retreats, a prairie picnic, a blessing of the animals, creativity workshops, and a 25th Jubilee celebration and open house Oct. 10. Details and registration will be rolled out under the Retreats & Programs tab at prairiewoods.org/
Growth and gratitude
The original farm committee members suggested establishing a residence for four or five people and a small facility for workshops accommodating up to 30 people. Their leadership in La Crosse, Wis., told them to think bigger, to expand their focus from ecology to one that would incorporate “the spiritual and ecological for care for the earth,” said Sister Joann Gehling.
She was one of the six nuns then appointed to work with architects to develop a plan for the land.
“We planned a little too big, and had to cut back a bit,” she said with a laugh. “But what we pretty much planned is what is there today,” along with two small hermitage cottages in the woods, which came later.
As Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, they follow in the spirits of Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi, and their devotion to the land, its animals, and social causes.
“Joy is a big part of the story, and gratitude,” said Gehling, 81, who lives near Prairiewoods.
One of the most surprising aspects about Prairiewoods’ evolution is “how it has grown,” she said, “and how it has attracted people from near and far, and how it gives them a place when they need quiet time to sort some things out in their life.
“But I think it's also the integration of spirituality with the earth is very practical,” she noted. “We don't do regular church services or structure with spirituality, but I think that sense of being open to all people, I think a lot of people are connecting with that in their own lives.”
She added that she gains satisfaction in seeing individuals “start claiming their own gifts and coming to deepen their own spirituality, whatever that might be.”
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