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Anonymous Sightings at Prairiewoods

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.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we are reminded of a multitude of tiny gestures that can add up to a feeling of welcome and beauty. One Prairiewoods guest, who prefers to remain nameless, finds reasons for gratitude in the tiniest details …

Anonymous is alive and well at Prairiewoods. Turning in off Boyson Road, the landscaped explosions of perennial colors show the care provided by volunteers we may not know. Just look at all the giving that enriches this sacred space: quiet conversations, swings, tables and chairs on patios, decks, picnic tables, benches, bird feeders, open space, laughter, mulched pathways, guest houses, silence, the solar installation. The community spirit is everywhere but you have to come frequently to catch someone actually doing the work that keeps Prairiewoods vital.

The floral and nature bouquets set on tables wherever people gather in the Center or Guest House are a subtle but consistent reminder of Anonymous among us. One winter weekend, I participated in a retreat that could have focused only on the exuberantly fresh flowers arranged in a vase on the presenter’s table, a glorious living sculpture the size of a human torso. The bouquet breathed the retreat theme of beauty as a path of worship.

Rita arranging flowersOne morning, I watched Sister Rita Heires trim the wilted flowers and greenery during a session break. Another time I saw several people prepare the Center for a silent retreat with single tables set for each retreatant. Every place held a unique tabletop corsage created by Sister Rita. I love coming to Prairiewoods to see what she has made for us that day.

Recently I walked into the conference room at the Center and out of the corner of my eye, the soft colors mixed in a tall vase on a side table intrigued me. My mind thought “iris” but another mental screen flashed “November.” Surprised, I turned to look more closely. Tall twigs with crisp, ochre leaves impersonated flowers. An evergreen branch held its flat needles like leaves. These simple parts posed in a pastel pink vase refreshed me, clarifying my attention for the contemplative session ahead.

When I asked about her training, Sister Rita laughed at anything so formal. Playing with flowers and natural forms dates back to her childhood on her family’s farm near Carroll. She loved making bouquets, even though her father didn’t like one more thing added to the table set for their large family. Now she roams Prairiewoods to collect what attracts her.

Sometimes her findings are spread out over the dessert table before she assembles her creations, vases and fabric and ribbon alongside hickory nut husks, flowers, greenery, water, and rocks. Intricate fabric swatches complement the complex patterns in seed pods and feathers, dried leaves and acorns. The juxtaposition of shapes, colors, and textures delights us: a centerpiece at lunch last week sported a hosta leaf, some parsley sprigs, and a dainty miniature iris, soft as silk.

The daily tasks of the Prairiewoods staff set the tone for humility and service in the programs, fields, gardens, and forest. You may not know or meet the person who does the work that catches your eye or fills your heart, but until then, you receive the great gift of service for the common good. Their work effortlessly transforms us. “I don’t know what it is about being here,” I’ve overheard people say on their way to the parking lot. “I feel different when I leave.” I think it’s why we keep coming back.

— Anonymous

UN Sustainable Development Goals

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.

Prairiewoods board Vice Chair Chuck Peters is working hard to create an inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable community right here in eastern Iowa. He and other business leaders are finding inspiration from world leaders from the United Nations …

Late last year I was fortunate to hear a presentation in London on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how they relate to everyday businesses. I could not help but think of Iowa’s Creative Corridor and the role that Prairiewoods plays in our development.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals ( are becoming the framework of a clearly emerging global narrative. Just recently, I have heard of many global companies, philanthropic organizations and governmental agencies using these goals as their framework for action.

Chuck PetersThere are 17 goals, and the work of Prairiewoods touches on most of them, with a strong focus on several.

In particular, I am sensitive to goal 11, the development of sustainable cities and communities. The summary of that goal is making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

For Iowa’s Creative Corridor to thrive, and live into our brand, we also need to be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable to enhance our ability to imagine the future we desire to live into.

Our focus at Prairiewoods on the Universe Story, ecology and joyfully living in accord with the world as it is enhances the ability of individuals in our region to develop our capabilities to do this work.

I am so grateful that Prairiewoods was founded 20 years ago and continues to develop into its strong role in our community.

Our local, inclusive and sustainable community also needs to be connected to the world. Prairie woods brings in diverse global voices that enrich our community and connect us to the world. We have another wonderful opportunity next May 5–6, when Ilia Delio, my favorite theologian, joins us.

—Chuck Peters, Board Vice Chair


Travel with Us to Assisi

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.

Guess what, everyone, this squirrel doesn’t just hang around one tree, he travels when he has a hankern’ for Italian acorns … and boy, oh, boy are they tasty! Humans aren’t the only ones with ancestors from across the pond — this squirrel is half I-talian!!

My friend Emy Sautter and I recently traveled as pilgrims to Rome, Greccio and Assisi — what an adventure! We visited many beautiful places that had special meaning to my beloved friends, St. Francis and St. Clare. We stopped by the Vatican to say hello to Pope Francesco (love that guy!), kissed the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, and admired the faces of the putti, the cherub angels that adorn the great cathedrals.

Then we stopped in the cutest little town of Greccio and had a Christmas pranza (lunch) … goodness was I stuffed after that! St. Francis popularized the Christmas crèche after visiting the town of Greccio. After that we traveled to the beautiful medieval holy city of Assisi where St. Francis and St. Clare lived. The olive trees, the oak trees … bella vita … I was in squirrel heaven!

While in Assisi we traveled to the caves that Francis and the brothers spent time in for prayer and solitude, the Carceri Hermitage. There were some beautiful trees there that I asked Emy to take a picture of. That afternoon we had a day of silence and solitude and we walked along many steep, narrow streets in Assisi, eventually making our way to Rocca, the arsenal above Assisi. There I visited with a small lizard and we became fast friends. He opened his home to me (such Franciscan hospitality!), and as I sat in silence he shared his thoughts with me … the importance of being hospitable and facing our fears in life. (He was a teeny lizard after all, and I, a mighty squirrel.) And I do believe I saw God in those lovely eyes of his.

Emy and I and our fellow pilgrims celebrated mass each day, and we visited a most tiny chapel, the Porziuncola (meaning little portion), a favorite meeting spot for Clare and Francis. We visited the resting places and basilicas of Francis and Clare as well.

What a pilgrimage — praying with your feet is what one of our leaders called it, and it sure was! This little squirrel’s mind is packed full of wonderful history about St. Francis, St. Clare and so many holy places that they visited, and my body is fit for climbing the tallest trees after hiking up those hilly streets! My belly is full from all that pistachio gelato too! Most importantly my spirit and my heart are full of the Goodness of God, goodness that was so beautifully reflected in the lives of Sister Clare and Brother Francis who gave us Franciscan values to live by … in loving relationship with God, our fellow squirrels (and humans) and the whole of creation.

Pax et Bonum! Ciao!
Otis and Emy

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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


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

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