Sisters' billboards bring pope's environmental message to Iowa caucuses

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sister Carol Hoverman

By Sister Carol Hoverman

DUBUQUE, Iowa (CNS) — As
the eyes of the nation focused on the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, the 13
congregations of Catholic Sisters of the Upper Mississippi River Valley wanted
to capture the attention of participants to call for an end to environmentally
destructive policies and practices.

They did so by placing
more than 20 billboards in strategic locations throughout state, southwest
Wisconsin and western Illinois.

The billboards, posted in
January and into February, carry the message “Standing with Pope Francis;
Caring for Our Common Home.” In his latest encyclical, “Laudato Si’,”
Pope Francis urgently calls people all over the world to take action to protect
the earth.

Environmental issues have
not yet gotten much attention with the candidates and many voters. The
billboards are an effort to change this.

The Catholic Sisters for
a Healthy Earth Committee, which represents the communities of women religious
sponsoring the campaign, initiated the plan for the billboards.

“Our big hope is
that people see that caring for the climate, caring for the earth is a moral
obligation,” committee member Sister Joy Peterson said in an interview
with National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report. “It’s not
political, even though we need to influence politicians, but it’s an issue so
important to the future of all creation. We also want to stimulate further
response to the encyclical reminding people of that message that earth is our
common home.”

People also are urged to call
attention to the humanitarian challenges of climate change with legislators and
candidates at the caucus and throughout the election season.

“‘Caring for Our
Common Home’ also invites each of us to do our part to lessen the detrimental
effects our actions have on the environment,” said Sisters Kathleen
Storms, a School Sister of Notre Dame, who is director of Our Lady of the
Prairie Retreat in Wheatland, Iowa. “When our personal actions align with
Pope Francis’ message, we will effect change in our homes, neighborhoods. When
our legislators see us taking this message seriously, they will find ways to
make changes that will alter our state and global actions.”

The billboards are placed
in the Iowa cities of Bettendorf, Cedar Rapids, Clinton, Davenport, Des Moines
and West Des Moines, Dubuque and Sioux City, in the tri-state areas of Rock
Island and Moline, Illinois, and Kieler, Wisconsin.

“Part of the reason
for our billboard campaign is not only to encourage us to talk with our
representatives and the candidates about incorporating the environment into our
policies, but it’s also that we keep aware, keep moving and discovering all the
riches in the encyclical, so we don’t just buy a copy, read it once, put it on
the shelf and forget it,” said another committee member, Dubuque
Franciscan Sister Michelle Balek.

Short public common
prayer services were being held in each city where the billboards are posted:
Dubuque and Davenport, Jan. 27; Des Moines, Jan. 31; and Cedar Rapids, where a
Feb. 6 service was planned. It was rescheduled from Feb. 2 after weather predictions called for heavy snow.

In Dubuque, about 50
sisters, associates and friends huddled on a cold, windy day near
a billboard there, and they carried placards with the billboard message.

The sung refrain of
“Sacred the Land, Sacred the Water” by Franciscan Brother Rufino Zaragoza
carried the theme.

Individuals read quotes
from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common

“The climate is a
common good, belonging to all and meant for all.”

“We need only to
take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into
serious disrepair.”

“Today, we cannot
help but recognize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social
approach, which must integrate justice in the discussions of the environment,
to hear the cry of the earth with the cry of the poor.”

The prayer petitions that
followed called for actions needed to halt the practices harming the

“We pray that the
agreement from the Paris Climate Conference will truly help us to care for our
common home and each other.”

“We pray for the
next steps along the journey that governments and others must take. We ask that
God will guide them in fulfilling their commitments justly and in raising their
ambition to meet the needs of the world.”

A few beeps of solidarity
and waves from passing lunch-hour motorists punctuated the prayer service.

“May all who pass by
this billboard be moved to work for the good of our common home,” prayed
Peterson at the conclusion of the service.

The response to the
billboards has been very positive. “Thank you sisters for living and
preaching the call for our planet’s sustainability! Standing with you from
Milwaukee,” wrote one commenter on a community’s Facebook page.

Sisters United News, comprised
of communicators from these religious communities, created the “Care for Our
Common Home” message for ads appearing in the USA Today and local diocesan
newspapers during the September visit of Pope Francis to the United States.
Members of the Catholic Sisters for a Healthy Earth Committee expanded on that
idea as they planned for the pre-caucus billboard campaign.

Catholic sisters who
collaborated on both the ads and the billboards have created other
Gospel-themed justice issue messages over the past 20 years. A billboard
campaign before the 2012 caucus urged people to be part of welcoming
communities, to accept and help immigrants searching for safety and better
lives for their families.

With the current
billboard, they want to raise awareness and encourage all to walk more gently on
this planet to preserve our earth for future generations.

This message also was going
out on posters on city buses in Dubuque. In addition, there are frequent
postings on Facebook and Twitter. These can be found at:,
which includes videos of the Jan. 27 prayer service, and

Catholic sisters who
collaborated on the billboards include the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa,
Wisconsin; Benedictine Sisters of Rock Island, Illinois; Sisters of Mercy West
Midwest Community; School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province;
Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, La Crosse, Wisconsin; Sisters of the
Humility of Mary, Davenport, Iowa; Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, Iowa;
Discalced Carmelites, Eldridge Iowa; Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin
Mary, Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque
Franciscan Sisters, Visitation Sisters and Trappistine Sisters all in Dubuque,

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Sister Hoverman, a member of the
Dubuque Franciscan Sisters, is a member of the Sisters United News. In 2015,
she retired as director of communications of the Archdiocese of Dubuque and as
editor of The Witness, the archdiocesan newspaper.

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