Pa. nuns protest gas pipeline with last-ditch 'chapel'

WEST HEMPFIELD, Pa. — Roman Catholic Sisters Bernice Klostermann and George Ann Biscan stood in a clearing on a rolling Lancaster County cornfield last week and conceded that their quest to block a natural gas pipeline barely has a prayer.

“We don’t hold out that much hope,” said Sister Bernice of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. “But we do put trust in the providence of God.”

The order has erected, with the help of a supporter, what they are calling an arbor, but what others are calling a “prayer chapel” — complete with a hand-carved altar — precisely where the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is supposed to be installed.  It’s a last-ditch protest to block the flow of natural gas through their land.

A federal judge agreed this month that the pipeline’s parent company, Williams Partners,  can condemn a portion of the order’s property for an easement.  A hearing in U.S. District Court of the Eastern District in Reading is scheduled for Monday morning.

So erecting the arbor is a sort of dare to Williams to rip it down. The sisters cannot call it a chapel because it has not been consecrated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. But their quest has drawn national attention.

“It exploits the land to make a profit,” Sister Bernice says of the pipeline.

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ, established in Lancaster County in the 1920s, has acquired nearly 100 surrounding acres over the years. Among the land’s uses are a home for the elderly.  A school for girls it once operated has closed.

Williams wants to lay a 42-inch-diameter pipe along the edge of a 23-acre parcel the sisters own off Locust Grove and Prospect Roads in West Hempfield Township.  Williams  would have rights to about a 50-foot-wide chunk of the land.  When complete, the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline will run 185 miles from the Marcellus Shale to the southern part of Pennsylvania. The line ultimately would continue into Maryland, Virginia, and through to South Carolina.

The company says it has legal rights to the field because the pipeline was approved in February by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  The Natural Gas Act allows companies to condemn properties on federally approved projects.

Williams disclosed in court filings that the appraised value for right of way to about 1.5 acres of the nuns’ land is $109,740 —but that it offered the nuns more than that. A final sum was not disclosed. The township has assessed all 23 acres at $217,100.

A large Sheetz convenience store with a drive-through and gas pumps has opened nearby. The sisters’ cornfield abuts a suburban housing development. A small township park is adjacent to the arbor.

But the nuns say they have resisted selling to developers over the years and have sworn to protect the land under a “land ethic” agreement among the Adorers that was signed in 2005.

“As women, we celebrate the rhythms of creation; with Mother Earth we live the Paschal mystery of life, death and new life and, with others, preserve and nurture creation,” states one part of the pact.

Sisters Bernice (right) and Sister George Ann, Catholic nuns with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, in front of the “Land Ethic” they adhere to. The arbor is in the background.

Williams first filed a notice of condemnation in Eastern District Court in April after the sisters refused to settle; it since has filed for permission to access the property by Aug. 18. Williams has settled so far with all but about 30 of the roughly 1,000 landowners along the route for pipeline easements.

On July 7, Judge Jeffrey Schmehl agreed that the condemnation could continue, but set aside the question of when it would occur for Monday’s hearing.  Legally, the land’s fate appears to be sealed, but the sisters see that as no reason to stop trying to protect the land that means so much to their order.

“We call it the beautiful order of things,” said Sister George Ann.

In the early days of the order, the nuns were penniless and had to knock on doors for food.

“Without the land we probably would have not been able to continue,” she says. “We farmed the land … and that’s how we are able to provide for ourselves.”

A different view of a rolling Lancaster County cornfield where nuns from Adorers of the Blood of Christ are trying to block the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline from running through their property on Locust Grove Road in West Hempfield, Lancaster County.

Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, said he respects the right of people to protest the pipeline. But putting up a structure to block the pipeline’s path is different.

“Unfortunately, the placement of the arbor in the middle of the planned construction right-of-way creates a safety hazard for construction of this important, federally approved project,” Stockton wrote in an email. “With the exception of the width of the construction right-of-way, this structure can be placed anywhere else on the property without issue.”

He said the sisters would still be able to use the land.  The pipe will run about three to five feet underground and topsoil will be replaced.  So the area over the pipe will remain suitable for farming, Stockton said.

But the sisters and their supporters, including the group Lancaster Against Pipelines, say they are holding out hope there will be no pipe at all.

Jon Telsco, whose wife, Eva, is with Lancaster Against Pipelines, built the arbor.

Eva Telsco said she is supporting the sisters because the pipeline would run near her home. The area’s residents feel powerless against the government and Williams, she explained.

“I think like a lot of people here, I thought at first that this was no big deal,” she said of the pipeline.  But she began doing research and now worries about leaks or blasts.

Mark Clatterbuck, also with Lancaster Against Pipelines, said neighbors were naive in their property rights against energy companies armed with federal approval and unaware that land could be condemned if they didn’t want to sell.

“It’s just the thought that a company can draw a line on a map and a community has no right to stop it,” said Clatterbuck, a Lancaster resident and professor of religion at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

The Diocese of Harrisburg says it has taken no position on the issue, but has stayed out of the sisters’ way.

Joe Aponick, a spokesman for the diocese, says it doesn’t oversee the day-to-day activity of the nuns.

“The Sister of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ have provided valuable ministry within the Diocese of Harrisburg for many years,” the diocese said in a statement.  “This includes the current operation of Saint Anne’s Retirement Community, which provides care for the needs of older adults.”

Sister Bernice says this fight is about more than her order’s land.

“My understanding of eminent domain is that it’s used when they take property for the good of the people,” she says, referencing local residents. “This is not for the good of these people.”