Discovering the essence of Prairiewoods: A fusion of wisdom, ecospirituality and community

Photos courtesy of Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center

Enter the peaceful realm of Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, an FSPA-sponsored ministry located in Hiawatha, Iowa — a sacred space inviting people of all faiths and backgrounds to connect with the Source of all Being, Earth, self and others. Nestled in 70 acres of nature, Prairiewoods intertwines spirituality, ecology and well-being.

In this story about Prairiewoods — an integral chapter of FSPA’s 175th anniversary of prayer, witness and service — we walk with Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Lucille Winnike, Nancy Hoffman, Joanne Moeller and Joann Gehling, all integral in shaping the essence of Prairiewoods. Each sister contributes a unique perspective on Prairiewoods’ history, mission of ecospirituality and its commitment to the community.

Shaping the tapestry of history

Sister Lucille Winnike has played a great role as retreat director and spiritual guide. Her journey, rooted in a master’s degree in mathematics from Notre Dame University in Indiana, has been a dynamic exploration of education, administration and profound spiritual studies.

Sister Lucille’s earlier ministries encompassed teaching and administration in Catholic schools along with vital roles within her community. However, her path took a transformative turn as she explored the realms of spirituality through advanced studies at Notre Dame. Interning as a spiritual director, she discovered a calling that resonates deeply within the sacred spaces of  Prairiewoods.

“Many persons who come here experience the richness and healing powers of Prairiewoods itself, of Mother Earth, of God,” shares Sister Lucille. “It is my privilege to meet with some of those people.” Her words encapsulate the essence of Prairiewoods — an environment where individuals encounter profound richness, healing and a divine connection.

May 1995: Sisters Betty Daugherty, Nancy Hoffman, Joanne Moeller, Karen Flottmeier,
Joann Gehling and Therese Pedretti attend ground breaking ceremony.

A beacon of ecospirituality

Sister Nancy Hoffman, one of Prairiewoods’ foundresses, has been instrumental in shaping the center’s mission of ecospirituality. Drawing from her background in education, theology and licensed massage therapy, Sister Nancy has played a key role in developing diverse programs, including therapeutic massage, healing touch, tai chi and other health-related practices. Sister Nancy highlights the contributions of the dedicated and talented adjunct staff who enable the integration of modalities such as forest bath, reflexology, yoga, ChiGong and singing bowls.

Sister Nancy shared insights into Prairiewoods’ history, emphasizing the collective efforts of the foundresses. Crucial moments, such as the divine call and the selection of the first director, marked significant milestones. In these pivotal moments, as Sister Nancy noted, “All the foundresses together shaped Prairiewoods. My more specific contributions lay in the development of the outdoor lands and the area of holistic health,” great contributions to the center’s success.

Sister Nancy explored the evolution of Prairiewoods’ vision, emphasizing its resilience and adaptability. Rooted in prayer, study and strong ecological principles, the vision has remained strong and viable. Prairiewoods now offers programs with a wider diversity of inspiration, all the while honoring time-tested spiritual practices.

The concept of a sacred space holds profound meaning for Sister Nancy. Prairiewoods, with its sacred land, trees and animals, serves as a space where people connect with God in nature. “For me, it is the place where I have been able to plant thousands of trees and follow many of them to full growth. I know them. We talk. They tell me of God and all that is holy.” The intentional sacred energy contributed by individuals throughout history continues to shape Prairiewoods as a welcoming place for all, where one can find healing and connect with God in nature, oneself and with others.

1996: Sisters Betty Daugherty, Nancy Hoffman, Therese Pedretti, Karen Flottmeier, Maryam Gossling,
Joanne Moeller and Joann Gehling attend ribbon cutting ceremony.

Fostering community relationships

In the early days of Prairiewoods, Sister Joanne Moeller, another of Prairiewoods’ foundresses, took charge of construction, facing challenges like contractor bankruptcy and unfinished spaces. Her resilience and commitment to ecospirituality are evident as she shared stories of adapting to adversity. Sister Joanne highlights pivotal moments, emphasizing Prairiewoods’ community  partnerships and the continuous support of volunteers.

“Starting something from scratch presented challenges, from construction setbacks to the desire to focus on ecospirituality when resources were limited,” she recalls. “The sense of our community has been a pivotal and ongoing moment, supported by dedicated volunteers and collaborations with various organizations. Recognizing the ongoing challenge of diversity, we are striving to be more inclusive, understanding that unity and representation are crucial components of our evolving vision.”

Sister Joanne reflects on sacred spaces, noting Prairiewoods’ early recognition as one from its role as a welcoming space for individuals seeking to connect with Mother Earth. Sister Joanne shares, “Any space can hold sacredness, depending on how we treat it and what we decide to place or avoid within it.” As Prairiewoods continues to evolve, Sister Joanne remains committed to fostering community relationships and inclusivity, recognizing unity and representation as crucial components of the center's ongoing vision.

Weaving a web of spirituality

Sister Joann Gehling, another of Prariewoods’ foundresses, who holds a doctorate in ministry, has showcased Prairiewoods’ commitment to contemporary issues. As the organizer of a prayer vigil for immigrants, she exemplified the intersection of spirituality and action. Sister Joann’s stories reflect the ongoing journey of weaving spirituality into the fabric of everyday life.

Recalling the prayer vigil, Sister Joann shares, “In the midst of national unrest, we stood in community, realizing the interconnectedness of issues like immigration, racism and ecological degradation. Prairiewoods’ commitment extends to addressing contemporary challenges and fostering healing. It’s a reminder of our baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice and oppression, intertwining spirituality with a commitment to justice and freedom.”

In the heart of Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, Sisters Lucille, Joanne, Nancy and Joann, along with many other sisters, have collectively shaped a sacred space where history, ecospirituality and community intersect. Their commitment has created a special place where people from all backgrounds can come together, find healing and connect with nature, themselves and each other.


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