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The Seeds that Grow into Prairiewoods

Otis & Friends 2I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

More than 20 years ago, the land I lived on was visited by six gentle humans. The critters and I soon learned that these were not humans to be feared, but humans who would value and revere us and our habitats. Here is the story of how they planted the seeds that have grown and are growing into Prairiewoods, as told by one of those original gentle humans …

Twenty years. I’m looking back today—looking back, yes—but with great excitement for the future. So much more is possible.

What were we thinking back then, twenty years ago, we six women, Franciscans in touch with the spirit of the great saint of the 13th century, Saint Francis, a saint who related to the poor, to the leper and the wolf, to simplicity and joy, to Earth’s beauty?

What were we thinking? Only that something was calling. It was time for something to happen on the 70 acres that our community had purchased in 1961.

Francis was a dreamer and so were we, dreamers all, and hopefully led by the Spirit.

The six of us were:

– Joann Gehling, just back from Chicago with a new degree, a doctorate in ministry with a concentration in feminist theology and psychology. Joann was ready to add her counseling skills to the venture;

– Maryam Gossling, a professional artist and the one who constantly reminded all of us of the value of the beautiful. We still remember with delight her go-to dinner prayer, “May this food be to our health and beauty.”

– Nancy Hoffman, a former creative and beloved teacher now emerging in her new role of becoming a beloved massage therapist and creative teacher of T’ai Chi with a deep spiritual connection to and knowledge of nature;

– Joann Moeller, with a doctorate in home economics plus a mixture of gifts including a flair for beauty complemented with a bent for the practical and a great organizer.

– Therese Marie Pedretti, arriving from Wisconsin to join the group, bringing with her her own great experience in retreat work and a high qualification as a spiritual director.

– and me. I was the sixth member of what would come to be known as the Core Group, a group with a desire to work as a team. I had recently completed a term of service to Franciscan Sisters mostly in Iowa and Minnesota.

The foundresses: (from left) Sisters Betty, Nancy, Therese, Karen Flottmeier (FSPA President at the time), Maryam, Joann M. and Joann G.

The foundresses at Prairiewoods’ ribbon cutting in 1996 (from left): Sisters Betty Daugherty, Nancy Hoffman, Therese Pedretti, Karen Flottmeier (Regional Director at the time), Maryam Gossling, Joanne Moeller and Joann Gehling.


It was 1994 when we began the exciting challenge of laying the groundwork for what would become Prairiewoods. As many other religious women of the time, we were greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, plus other theologians and scientists who were telling us of the new Universe Story with all of its spiritual implications.

In the next two years, the six of us met almost weekly to study and pray together. We read articles and watched every tape that Brian Swimme produced, plus most of Thomas Berry’s. It seemed in those days that new and exciting books were coming off the presses every week. So we read.

We discovered resources in the community—Trees Forever and Iowa Renewable Energy Association (I-Renew) were both extremely helpful and encouraging. Many other local authorities gave advice and support. Those Wednesdays when we met were needed for such things as deciding on an overall vision, developing a plan for the protection and development of the land, deciding what responsibilities and activities we each might embrace, and eventually working with architects and contractors. None of this, of course, was even thinkable without the approval and support of our community, The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Their “yes” to the creation of Prairiewoods made it possible then and continues to make it possible now. In addition to members of the core group, other members of FSPA have since joined the staff, each adding her own more wisdom and personal skills to the common effort.

The entire history of these 20 years requires more than this blog for its telling. There have been so many memorable moments, so many creative and committed people who have played a vital part as members of the staff, so many board members gave their time in a generous spirit and who have faithfully kept the center moving forward, some challenges, some disappointments, some work and, yes, some pain.

The mission statement of Prairiewoods today is remarkably similar to the original one. The vision has not changed. Our desire has been and is to open this 70 acres as a sacred space for all who desire to deepen their spirituality, to come to know themselves more completely, to welcome the healing power of Earth and to recognize the spiritual connection we have with all life and to come to realize that, no matter what our creeds or cultures, all of us are one human family.

Our Universe is most fantastic, radically amazing! And through the Universe Story, we learn about the long, long journey life has had, becoming always more complex and more diverse through the centuries. And as to the miracle of life on Earth, we can turn to Brian Swimme who says, “This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: you take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.”

Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center is a sacred space where people of all faiths and cultures are invited to explore and nurture their relationships with the Source of All Being, Earth, Self and Others with an increasing awareness of the story of the Universe. Won’t you join us?

—Betty Daugherty, one of six Prairiewoods foundresses

Two Unique Gift-Buying Opportunities at Prairiewoods

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Today I’m excited to tell you about two unique opportunities to buy more meaningful gifts for those you love this Christmas season …

2016 Holiday Bazaar LogoThe Holiday Bazaar on Saturday, Nov. 19, from 8 a.m.–1 p.m. offers a variety of local, handmade items from distinctive vendors and showcases baked goods, jewelry, felted wool mittens and bags, pottery, water color paintings, and many other art forms. There will be 13 local vendors, plus amazing fair-trade items from developing nations. The Prairiewoods’ Knitters and Stitchers, who meet at Prairiewoods twice a month, will provide mittens, scarves and blankets, as well as kitchen and baby items, all hand-crafted with love! Come early for pastries and coffee in the Coffee Corner, or join us for lunch from 11 a.m.–1 p.m.

2016 AGM LogoTwo weeks later, the Alternative Gift Market (AGM) on Saturday, Dec. 3, from 9 a.m.–2 p.m. offers a great opportunity to relieve poverty and empower individuals by learning about and supporting charitable projects locally and around the world.  An alternative gift is a humanitarian donation given in honor of a friend or loved one. Just like traditional gifts, they express love and affection, celebrate special occasions and show you care. But unlike traditional gifts, alternative gifts don’t contribute to the consumer stream and won’t be left to collect dust on a shelf. Honor a friend or relative with an alternative gift of food, medicine, livestock or education, in areas with great need around the world and here in our community. Thirty international projects and up to thirty local organizations will be represented at the market. Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation (SERRV) will sell fair trade and hand-made items.  A bake sale will run all day, and lunch will be available from 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. Change the world one gift at a time with gifts that empower the poorest of the poor on our planet to sustain life and to build a future for subsequent generations! For more information, visit

African Women Empowered (AWE) will be present at both events. They feature hand-made items that support African women refugees in the Cedar Rapids community.  This year, shop alternatively at Prairiewoods and give gifts that have a local or global impact!

The Spiritual Dimension of Climate Change

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.


Although Prairiewoods is a Catholic organization founded on Franciscan principles, it is open to people on any spiritual path. Recently, we critters learned a lot about some of these other spirtualities through a program focused on the problems of climate change from various religious perspectives. What an eye opener! Here are some thoughts on the day from Daishin McCabe, one of the program organizers and facilitators …

On Aug. 28, Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center hosted The Spiritual Dimension of Climate Change, a retreat that looked at the changing composition of our Earth and atmosphere from the perspectives of some of the great Religions of the world—Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Native American, and Christianity—as well as Humanism. Representatives of these traditions—Imam Hassan, Patrick Courtney, Rev. Zuiko Redding, Nancy Rhoades, Rev. Joan Fumetti, and Alan Diehl—offered insights and action points to the on-going dialogue around climate change. Noteworthy of the event was the coming together of multiple worldviews around a single topic, implying that not one of us has all the answers.

Climate change is a problem like no other that humanity has grappled with. Until recently, humanity’s concerns have mostly been limited to specific geographical regions—not taking into account the whole of Earth and how the actions in one place affect the actions in another. Our vision has been mostly limited to perhaps a few generations beyond the present. Climate change is forcing people to look beyond the activities of local bioregions and beyond the present moment, for it is a problem that affects everyone on the planet for the next several hundred if not thousand years. We are dealing with a long-term emergency, which we are not only ill-prepared to meet, but linguistically challenged to articulate. This linguistic challenge is reminiscent of the numinous experience—that which cannot be comprehended with words or rational thought alone.

Daishin McCabeThe Spiritual Dimension of Climate Change provided a safe space for people of faith or no faith to wrestle with and make meaning of our changing planet. It also provided action points to consider, with the recognition of the need for a long-term commitment to the issue. Special thanks to the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County and Iowa Interfaith Power and Light for sponsoring and promoting this event.

—Daishin McCabe, program facilitator


A Letter Home from a Well-Traveled Spider

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

You may not think of squirrels and spiders as being particularly good friends, but all the critters at Prairiewoods have grown close over the last 20 years of living together. When the dust cleared after the awesome Sweetgrass Flute & Nature Festival here a few weeks ago, I couldn’t find my friend Brown Spider. I was starting to get worried, until I received a letter from her …

My Dearest Otis & Friends,

I wanted to take a minute out of your busy day gathering nuts preparing for the winter months coming up to let you know I have moved. It was a quick and unexpected decision for me. Remember just a little while ago we had some “Sweet” music floating through the “grass.” It was during that time that I was noticing there were more of our human friends visiting our home at Prairiewoods. With all the extra foot traffic through my grassy home, I thought it would be a good idea to find a more protected place to wait out the crowds.

I noticed that the side vertical opening of the large permanent structure was opening and closing more often than usual. I attached myself to one of the human visitors and rode safely through the opening and immediately dropped off. Still unsecure with all the foot traffic I ducked under the first vertical opening possible and found a quiet cave. There was one inviting canvas cloth that seemed like a great place to stay while all the extra humans were among us. I snuggled down in and took a long nap.

spiderLittle did I know that at the end of the day the canvas started moving, and I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up. Several times I heard slamming of medal doors and then I felt less movement and more vibrations for about 15 minutes. Then all the vibrating stopped and the canvas cloth started moving again. By this time I was really scared, not knowing what was happening to me. Then the world stopped moving and just seemed to go extremely dark and quiet for about nine hours. I was starting to settle in and then the world got brighter. I almost shot out all my web when the canvas cloth opened and I saw a very surprised human face. I was hoping I wouldn’t get squished. I have found that most of our human visitors at Prairiewoods are kind, and this human got over her shock and gently carried the canvas outside and introduced me to my new exotic home in Marion. I hope the winters are shorter and warmer here!

So don’t worry about me … I know I will be happy in my new home. Goodbye and blessings!

—Brown Spider (as dictated to Lois Ocenosak, volunteer and program participant)

Sweet Memories of Sweetgrass

Otis & Friends 4I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Today I want to tell you about a lively party that recently took place right here in my home, the 70 acres that make up Prairiewoods …

The second annual Sweetgrass Flute & Nature Festival (and the flute school that preceded it) recently rocked the Prairiewoods grounds with the sounds of the Native American style flute and experiences that connected us to nature. Even though the Cedar River was cresting, about 1,000 guests came to Prairiewoods Sept. 23–25 to hear — and BE — the voice of the land!

Here are a few pictorial highlights of the festivities, as shared by our friends on social media. If you have others you’d like to share, feel free to use the comments section below. (If you don’t see “Add a Comment,” click on the green “Sweet Memories of Sweetgrass” above and then scroll to the bottom.)

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Happy Anniversary, Prairiewoods!

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

One such friend is Laura Weber, the associate director and retreat coordinator at Prairiewoods. Laura, like many who come to Prairiewoods, finds solace in a slow walk through the woods, a wordless discussion with nature. Here is her take on Prairiewoods’ first 20 years …

When Prairiewoods opened twenty years ago, the first retreat we hosted was a Silent Directed Retreat, offering guests a gracious invitation to come away to the quiet and rest. Guests were welcomed first and most hospitably by the land and the creatures who call Prairiewoods home. Pilgrims who needed respite were embraced by the trees, caressed by the gentle breezes rolling through the prairie grasses, and delighted by the deer peeking through the brush to see who these cerebral creatures were making their way through the woods. Butterflies and dragonflies alighting on the lily pads, bees buzzing around the wild flowers, turkeys in their rafters gobbling for sheer joy, frogs croaking in great chorus to welcome the evening shroud, and squirrels like Otis scampering through fallen leaves to hide their nutty stash were all welcoming signs of love and hope for the weary souls who came to this sacred place carrying too many burdens.

Soon, more people would come, and more, until thousands made their way each year to Prairiewoods for the quiet, to receive healing energy, to pray silently in the Meditation Room and to fall asleep listening to the owls and the locusts. They came to walk the Cosmic Walk, entering into the big story of the great Flaring Forth of the universe from the Font of Eternal Love and then finding their own place in the awesome magnificence of creation. They came to stroll through the gardens, and to breathe in the sweetness of lilac and jasmine, pine needles and pungent brown earth. They came to wind their way prayerfully around the labyrinth, in the midst of all life’s twists and turns, and to journey way out to the edges, only to find themselves at home in the middle of it all. They came to sing or dance, paint mandalas, beat drums, or sit peacefully by the pond or Dry Creek, mesmerized by the birdsong and the way the sunlight plays on the high canopies. Here is where they remembered their breath again. Here is where they found that “all is well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Laura and WolfieTwenty years later, Prairiewoods is still hosting sojourners seeking spiritual renewal, healing for body and soul, and sacred space for contemplation and rest. One guest put it this way:

This is a place of grace
A place resplendent with Queen Anne’s Lace
Along the gravel paths I trod
On my journey with my God
Show me the way, I pray
—Kathy Braun, SSND

As we celebrate this milestone in Prairiewoods’ history, we join with the choirs of creatures, the swaying grasses and the forest symphony, and we thank God for all good gifts and the wonder and joy of being alive! Thank you for joining in the dance!

—Laura A. Weber, Prairiewoods Associate Director and Retreat Coordinator


Great Blue Heron

Otis & Friends 2I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

One friend I want to introduce you to is Jenifer Hanson, the director at Prairiewoods. Jenifer is often taken with the majestic beauty of the many creatures who call Prairiewoods home. Here is her story of meeting one such resident …

On a humid July afternoon, I decided to walk out on the trails here at Prairiewoods. I am still trying to learn the lay of the land on our 70 acres and when my schedule permits some outdoor time, I try to seize the opportunity!

As I walked, I was contemplating the deep sorrow I was feeling in response to the series of recent national events: the Orlando shootings, the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, the attacks on police in Dallas and elsewhere. Also weighing on my heart was fear for our environment (as Earth experienced another year of record heat) and fear for our society in the midst of an alarming political season in the U.S. I felt powerless to do anything useful in the face of so many issues and concerns.

Suddenly, as I approached a shaded bench near the creek, I was startled by the sudden flight of a very large bird. Unbeknownst to me, a great blue heron had been standing in a shaded pool of water; I must have startled it first! The bird’s wings easily spanned more than five feet across, and I stood in awe of their powerful beating as they lifted the heron into the air. Almost as swiftly as it had appeared, the lovely creature had flown from view.

Jenifer HansonI sat down on the bench I had been moving toward when the heron’s flight stopped me in my tracks. As I caught my breath, and my heart rate returned to normal after spiking when I was startled, I was filled with very different emotions than the sad and fearful ones I carried into the woods with me. These lines of poetry came into my mind:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul …
—Emily Dickinson

I couldn’t help but compare Dickinson’s metaphorical bird with my direct experience of the great blue heron. In mere minutes, I felt hope had been reignited in me.

And that is one of the everyday miracles of Prairiewoods. When they chose to hold this land as sacred space, our foundresses and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration held space for active hope. In such moments at this, that hope can be experienced as a living, breathing thing embodied in the profusion of life inhabiting both woods and prairies.

When I returned to the Center, I shared my sighting of the great heron with Sr. Nancy Hoffman. She smiled and nodded knowingly. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “We’re occasionally blessed with these beautiful visitors.” I nodded, thinking how my brush with this particularly lovely visitor had gifted me with renewed hope. Yes, indeed, we are blessed.

—Jenifer Hanson, Prairiewoods Director

Thomas Berry, Mary Oliver and Squirrels

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

From my perch on the topmost branch of the great oak near the kitchen door, I see and hear all that is happening here. The view is great! By day I can watch immense white clouds drifting in from the West on a bed of blue and disappearing across the horizon. And at night, I live in a world of moon and stars. My tree is the perfect place for meditation. How could I not be prayerful living in such beauty?

Sometimes I hear a poem being read and that too leads me naturally into a meditative mood. There are so many great poems, but I often find something from Mary Oliver to be perfect. For instance, when I heard someone read her poem Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way, I loved how she talked about holiness being visible, even though God may not be. Holiness—it is visible. I see it all around me. It’s here in those clouds that the wind hurries across the sky. It’s here it is in the simple fact that this tree is here and that there is an earth, that there is day and a night, sunshine and rain mountains and rivers—and acorns. Holiness is here in the fact that our world exits, that through the long journey to our present existence, a journey of some 13-plus billion years, something kept evolution moving forward.

A friend of mine, Thomas Berry, inspires me the most as he tells this story, the Universe Story. In telling this story of all that exists and how all of us got here, Thomas sometimes refers to some special moments that were more dangerous than others as Moments of Grace. This is because, at each time of crisis, a major challenge was overcome and life was able to continue. The story could go on. One example of such a transformational moment was when our mother star scattered itself into the vastness of space. It was only out of this that our sun and entire planetary system was born. Another was when the first multicellular organic forms of life appeared. All future life forms are possible because of this one moment.

Tree - Grandmother 2_smallJust think, from those first small life forms comes what I see from my tree and, of course, even beyond. But I can see the fields of prairie, those big patches of waving grasses and flowers being enjoyed by bees and butterflies. Then there are cute rabbits, wandering geese, graceful deer and my fellow squirrels—all interesting to watch. Frogs sing in the pond and hundreds of birds swoop through the air. Humans too, some caring for the land, some resting in the sun, some creating those inviting aromas that drift through the kitchen window.

Thomas tells us that now we are the ones living in another Moment of Grace. The present, he says, is a time of great transformation in which the future will be determined. He tells us, though, that since we have been guided so far through many turbulent centuries, we should have confidence in the future. I think that is the mission of Prairiewoods, to offer what we can so that the transformation of each of us will help to bring about the great transformation that the future depends on. I want to be a part of that magnificent transformation that will surely happen when we take time to meditate wherever we are, in all the sanctuaries that are offered to us. Mine happens to be in a tree.

There are probably not many people who know that Thomas Berry has been a major inspiration for the creation of Prairiewoods. His vision seemed to simply grab at our hearts. In a way he opened new doors, although as we looked through them we recognized that we too felt that holiness is everywhere, that all is sacred. He verified for us that our spirituality is intrinsically linked to understanding our connections with our universe. I like to quote him as saying that “what happens in the outer world, happens in the inner world.”

Thomas and Mary Oliver make a great team as they both uncover the holy and the mythic meaning behind each new scientific discovery.

In the poem I mentioned earlier, Mary Oliver says that “all important ideas must include the trees, the mountains and the rivers.” And, as for me, I naturally see the need to include the trees in this idea of what is important. One of them is my home. And I can see that I am not the only one to seek out a tree as a refuge. Almost every day I see people here at Prairiewoods who find it a natural part of a retreat to sit under a tree; and I can see that they are having a great conversation together.

The trees, the mountains and the rivers are all mystical places. Our connection with them is spiritual. They feed our souls and make holiness visible. And the last line of the poem tells me that I, Otis, am a part of it all. It reads, “The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

—Otis (as dictated to Betty Daugherty, FSPA, Prairiewoods foundress)


20 Voices for 20 Years

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a whole scurry of them!

In honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary, we asked 20 friends, “Why are you grateful for Prairiewoods?” and “How have you been transformed?” As you can see in the quick YouTube video below, they are grateful for everything from the quiet serenity they find here to the natural playground created by our 70 acres. What has been your favorite thing about Prairiewoods over the last 20 years? What are you most looking forward to? #20Voices20Years


20 Voices for 20 Years

Everything I Need to Know I Learn from Otis

Otis & Friends 4I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

One such friend is Marianne Abel-Lipschutz. She and I spend a lot of time together at Prairiewoods, and I learn from her as she learns from me. Here are some of our best lessons …

An atmosphere of acceptance at Prairiewoods allows things to have their meaning, to exist as they are. Otis gets this better than I do. I love watching him —or whoever it is among his sisters or brothers or cousins, not sure of their identities but I know they’re related. They scamper through the woods, up and down trees, across the patio, into the flower beds, wherever the urge takes them. It looks like fun being a squirrel.

Marianne Abel-Lipschutz

They embody the confident community at Prairiewoods who delight in its marvelous abundance. I think of all the squirrels who have been born here, lived their busy lives, and died somewhere on the property. All that time they spent being who they were made to be. Sounds obvious, but I need a refresher on this lesson.

Otis teaches a powerful point: believing in abundance and acting in confidence. Everything a squirrel needs is right there somewhere, available. Eating, drinking, harvesting, storing. Places to rest, hide, sleep, visit. Paths to walk, trails to run, things to leave behind. Trust that everything you need is provided. Come as you are. Be as you are made to be.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschutz, program participant