When David Fremo returned at the end of the summer to his classroom at St. John’s Prep School in Collegeville, he found himself in a reflective mood.
“I was sitting looking outside the window and thinking, ‘Fall is coming. Where did summer go?’ And then I started thinking that there is a lot happening on the campus right now. There are a lot of needs. I thought maybe there was a chance we, as a student body, could meet some of those needs,” Fremo said.
At the beginning of the year, the prep school community determined that it wanted to “amplify” its Benedictine values. For these first couple of months, the school has focused on the value of stewardship, which is to “reverence all creation” and “to appreciate and to care lovingly for all the goods of this place.”
Fremo, who is a philosophy and theology teacher at the school, contacted John Geissler, the Abbey Arboretum land manager and St. John’s Outdoor University director, and began planning a Stewardship Day for students.
With the help of Geissler, five distinct projects were chosen:
- Collecting acorns. Acorns are collected and will be sent to the University of Minnesota, where they will be planted and grown into saplings. When they are large enough, they will be purchased back to be planted on campus.
- Removing Buckthorn, an abundant, invasive plant.
- Capping pine saplings. Deer love to snack on the very top of pine saplings, which permanently compromises the tree. Paper strips are stapled around the top to prevent this. Eventually, the sapling will pierce through the paper and the paper will naturally decompose.
- Oak sapling matting. To give oak saplings a fighting chance, weeds and brush surrounding them are cleared and mats are pinned down to prevent new ones from growing.
- Prairie seed collection. Seeds from native prairie plants will be collected, to be planted in the future.
On Sept. 21, students took to the woods and prairies for Stewardship Day. Fremo said though they were ready and willing, students weren’t just there to work.
“We wanted to make sure we had a good balance — the ‘what’ part of it — and then adding prayer and exploring the ‘why’ we are doing this and, most importantly, that they get to really practice stewardship and later reflect on it,” Fremo said.
“Part of what we were exploring was not only are we to take care of the land in its immediate time, to enjoy it for its beauty, but to always be thinking of the next generation. Students really had a chance to explore that intellectually, then spiritually and then practically,” Fremo said.
For example, he explained, the monks have a longstanding tradition of cultivating red oak from the land for furniture, made in the Abbey woodshop and which can be seen in many of the buildings throughout the campus.
Fremo accompanied students in sorting through acorns in the woods, identifying which were red oak.
“We gathered as many as possible and put them in huge sacks,” he said. “We completely filled all of the sacks in just over an hour’s time. We more than doubled the workload they expected that day. The kids were really that into it, they were that excited.
“We then learned that the acorns that are collected are shipped to the DNR which then will grow them into saplings and then [St. John’s] will purchase back and plant them. It is the same trees coming back onto the land,” he said.
Geissler said he was impressed with how the students responded so eagerly to the work and how much of an impact it had on them.
“The enthusiasm of students seeing something new for the first time in nature gets me fired up,” he said. “It is so awesome to see it through new eyes.
“I think what I heard the most is that a lot of people have taken for granted the land. They went from thinking, ‘It’s just there and it’s beautiful’ to seeing how much work it takes to keep a healthy ecosystem,” he said.
Fremo said the students will continue to reflect on their experiences, and the school plans to have more opportunities for service and hands-on learning throughout the year.
“We see it as honoring the gifts around us, contributing to the future and recognizing that that’s what we are called to do as stewards of the land,” Fremo said. “Students really found themselves falling into the work and understanding what they were doing.”
St. John’s Outdoor University is an educational program that provides environmental and outdoor education through classes, events and initiatives with the Abbey Arboretum, St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. Every Thursday, anyone can participate in a work day from 1:15-3:30 p.m. For more information, call 320-363-3163 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to watch a video made by two of the students who participated in the Stewardship Day.