- Associated Press - Thursday, July 24, 2014

VILLA MARIA, Pa. (AP) - Eleven nuns and four orphans left their native France in 1864 and traveled on a wave-battered ship to America. They resettled in northwest Lawrence County in a swamp and learned to farm overgrown land.

On Sunday, the successors of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, now numbering 158, celebrated their 150th anniversary at Villa Maria Community Center with a Mass.

“It means longevity. It means a legacy. It means the holiness of the ground, and I’m privileged to share the holy ground with kids and adults,” said Sister Jeanne Thurin, who has been in the order for 49 of her 67 years.

The original nuns learned English and became teachers and nurses. They tended to injured and ill railway workers and to neighbors sick with smallpox.

Decades passed, and needs changed. More lay persons taught in area schools. Enrollment in the nuns’ school declined, and it closed in 1989. The order has three health centers in Youngstown, Boardman and Warren, Ohio, but Catholic Health Partners now runs them.

The sisters shifted to social services. The housing ministry provides homes for needy senior citizens, female veterans and young men with a disability who have aged out of the foster system.

Some sisters fight human trafficking, while others hold a Grow Camp in the summer at the community center. Children learn about gardening and animals, swim in the center’s pool, make crafts and play.

“Some of the kids, when they started, didn’t know food came from the soil. They thought it came from the supermarket,” said Sister Joanne Gardner, archivist for the order.

Last week, the campers climbed and jumped from a 4-foot-tall boulder during a break. They picked radishes and lettuce from the garden, then headed for the barn. Some lingered, running their fingers through the corn that feeds the cattle. Others, pinching their nose at the scent of cow manure, scooted outside.

Layla Hassen, 9, of Youngstown, Ohio, has attended the camp for three years.

“It’s really fun and exciting,” she said. “You get to learn how to garden and learn about nature.”

Holly Reed, 35, of Pulaski picked up her daughter Samantha at the end of Grow Camp.

“It’s very educational,” Reed said. “We like to get them out of the house, away from all the electronics.”

The 761-acre campus, most of it forested, is tranquil. There’s little noise except the chirping of birds and buzzing of the campers. The farm at the center sells flowers, herbs and produce.

Last year, the religious order debated whether to accept an offer by energy companies to buy natural gas rights for thousands of dollars an acre. Upon meeting with neighbors, a committee of sisters and lay representatives turned it down.

“It’s not about the money,” said Sister Toby Lardie, pastoral leader of the order. “It’s about protecting part of God’s creation.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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