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An Abbey’s path to fiscal salvation

Determined to keep land they long worked, nuns turn to alternative energy

Sister Alice Chau checks on a solar panel in the power- (and revenue-) generating array set up by Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Franklin.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Sister Alice Chau checks on a solar panel in the power- (and revenue-) generating array set up by Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Franklin.

The nuns of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey have been working the land for more than six decades, so they see their latest venture — having more than 20,000 solar panels installed in a field on the Trappistine order’s property — as one more way of working in concert with nature.

“Instead of harvesting crops, we harvest electricity,” said Sister Alice Chau .

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More than 40 sisters live at the abbey, and many of them are too old to milk cows or garden. They were looking for ways to support themselves by utilizing the abbey’s land, which covers 500 acres straddling the Wrentham-Franklin line.

The Mount Saint Mary's Abbey

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff

The Mount Saint Mary's Abbey

The monks at Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer suggested that the nuns consider leasing their land for solar panels. The monks, who are also Trappists, are in the midst of a similar project.

“We want to keep our land,” said Sister Alice. “Solar is very, in a way, profitable, and at the same time it is in the path of nature. And we don’t need to sell our land or give people the right to develop the land. We don’t want industry or to bring in many people here.”

‘Instead of harvesting crops, we harvest electricity.’

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The Cistercian nuns also earn money by making Trappistine Quality Candy, which is sold in the abbey’s gift shop on Arnold Street in Wrentham and online at www.trappistinecandy.com.

The sisters worked on the power-generating project with Kearsarge Energy, a Watertown-

Some of the candy at the gift shop.

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff

Some of the candy at the gift shop.

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based company that developed and now manages the 40-acre solar farm. Since the nuns live a life of simplicity, devoted to prayer, they didn’t want to be responsible for the details of the complex project.

Franklin will use power generated from the solar panels to provide an estimated 80 percent of the electricity used in town buildings and schools. The town will also receive payments in lieu of taxes for the land where the solar panels were installed, and use credits for electricity produced by the farm to offset some of its other energy costs. In all, the town will receive about $300,000 a year in payments and energy savings, said Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting.

“We get green energy’’ and payments from the abbey, “and save on our energy bill,” Nutting

Crosses in the Mount Saint Mary's Abbey popular gift shop.

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff

Crosses in the Mount Saint Mary's Abbey gift shop.

said. “The nuns get a lease and they get to keep their land.”

The abbey, as a religious institution, does not pay property taxes, but the solar farm is a for-profit venture. Kearsarge Energy has leased the land from the sisters for the next 20 years.

The nuns already have a wind turbine and a geothermal system that together provide power and reduce heating and cooling costs in the building where the candy is produced.

For their alternative-energy projects, the sisters won an Energy Leadership Award in October from the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance. The Boston-based nonprofit buys the excess electricity generated by the wind turbine.

“That project impressed us, that they would try to demonstrate their stewardship, that they

Sister Alice

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff

Sister Alice

would try to put up a 100-kilowatt wind turbine,” said Larry Chretien, Mass Energy’s executive director. “Then we found out that they just couldn’t be stopped. They installed a geothermal system.”

The organization voted to honor the sisters after they began their third energy project: the solar panels.

The lives of the nuns are designed to eliminate distraction. Although they use computers for their work, they do not watch TV or have cellphones.

“We don’t mind at all that we cannot catch up with the new technology because we prefer our simple life,” Sister Alice said. She glances at a visitor’s cellphone. “Thank God we don’t have such things!”

The nuns don’t take a vow of silence, but they spend most of their hours each day not speaking, so they can pray.

Mount Saint Mary's Abbey popular gift shop.

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff

Mount Saint Mary's Abbey popular gift shop.

“We prefer monotonous, repetitive work,” Sister Alice said. “That’s why making candy is good, because you don’t need to use your mind. Then we can empty our mind and heart for God and for prayer.”

They live in simple rooms, with only beds, dressers, desks, and sinks. The abbey has an infirmary where some of the older nuns live. The sisters try to be as self-sufficient as possible. They sew their habits and work clothes, clean the abby’s buildings and cook their meals.

Every day is the same. The sisters wake at 3 a.m. for the first prayers at 3:20. They go to bed after their final prayers are said at 7:10 p.m.

Mount Saint Mary’s was the first Trappistine abbey in the United States, and was founded in 1949 by sisters from St. Mary’s Abbey in Ireland. Sister Alice arrived 20 years ago from Hong Kong. She came to the United States after she met a monk from Spencer.

Now the nuns are getting used to their recognition as environmental leaders.

“We didn’t plan it,” said Sister Alice. “It seems that this is the way that God is leading us. We did all these three out of necessity.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kathleen.burge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.

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