The sisters at St. Mary’s Abbey in Ireland grow their own heating fuel.

The sisters at St. Mary’s Abbey in Ireland grow their own heating fuel.

This article is part of our Design special section about making the environment a creative partner in the design of beautiful homes.

Between Holy Week and the demands of farm life, it wasn’t easy to get Sister Lily Scullion on the phone in April. (“Sorry for the delay, have been very busy with lambing,” she wrote in an email.)

But a packed schedule goes with the territory at St. Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, where 29 sisters are busy each day with work and prayer; making handmade cards, candles and Eucharistic bread; and tending the abbey’s grounds, which occupy nearly 250 acres of County Waterford, near Ireland’s southeastern coast.

And then there is the heating fuel to be harvested.

In an effort to live sustainably, the sisters not only use solar panels to warm their buildings but also a little-known but mighty form of elephant grass called miscanthus.


A view of St. Mary’s Abbey in County Waterford, near Ireland’s southeastern coast.Credit…Karen Cox for The New York Times


Sheep and lambs on the abbey’s farm.Credit…Karen Cox for The New York Times

St. Mary’s is a Cistercian monastery, part of a branch of the Benedictine order. The land that the sisters of St. Mary’s Abbey farm was once part of a large monastic settlement called St. Carthage of Lismore that was established in the seventh century and destroyed by Viking raids and Norman plundering.

St. Mary’s Abbey was established in 1932 by the nuns of Holy Cross Abbey, a Cistercian order in Dorset county, in England, which had numerous sisters from Ireland or with Irish roots.

Today, the abbey is the only Cistercian monastery for women in Ireland. Despite being an enclosed order, it welcomes visitors from all over the world to its guesthouse, which is busy year round. (“St. Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries” — written circa 530 A.D. — includes an entire chapter on hospitality.)

When asked what sorts of people wish to visit and stay in the guesthouse, Sister Lily said, “Everybody.”


Sister Lily Scullion, 78, grew up on a farm and came up with the idea of growing miscanthus.Credit…Karen Cox for The New York Times

“They are here mostly to sort of see what the life is like, and they can attend the prayers” — which begin at 4:10 a.m., seven days a week. “There’s a great sense of peace in the whole area,” she said, noting that guests invariably remark on the serenity of the abbey grounds.

A former All-Ireland camogie player (that’s an Irish ball-and-stick game) from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, Sister Lily, who is 78, joined the order in 1980 and it was she who brought miscanthus to St. Mary’s Abbey.

She grew up on a farm, and agriculture is in her blood. About a decade ago, she attended an informational meeting with a company from Limerick promoting miscanthus as a moneymaking crop. After years of struggling as a dairy farm, the abbey had a keen interest in finding something new and profitable.


After it is harvested, miscanthus is stored in a large shed on the abbey’s farm.


Dried misacanthus is used as fuel to heat the abbey’s buildings.Credit…Karen Cox for The New York Times

The plan to grow and sell miscanthus initially stalled, with the expense of trucking (“You’d have to pay a lorry to take it somewhere,” Sister Lily said) and the lack of a robust marketplace for the crop. But in the third year of planting, Sister Lily was able to sell some of the abbey’s harvest to a local business that makes briquettes for heating, and this gave her a new idea: producing fuel for their own use.

The abbey raised money to purchase an Axe Biotech boiler from Poland for 130,000 euros ($142,653), and since then, they’ve used the miscanthus they grow to heat the abbey’s buildings, including the six-bedroom guesthouse — a landmark structure with single-glazed windows.

The miscanthus is harvested, dried and then burned in the boiler. Asked if the boiler was efficient, Sister Lily said the first time she opened the door to the guesthouse, “The heat nearly knocked me out.”

The sisters of St. Mary’s Abbey are not alone in their enthusiasm for miscanthus. Emily Heaton, the director of the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, worked in the lab of an Irish crop scientist named Stephen P. Long as an undergraduate and has researched the suitability of miscanthus for use in the United States for two decades — specifically miscanthus x giganteus (Greef et Deu), the species that St. Mary’s Abbey burns for fuel.


Cows are part of the landscape at the abbey.

“The ‘x’ means that it’s a hybrid,” Ms. Heaton said, noting that this variety is like “the mule of the plant world.” Native to Asia, it is a sterile progeny that resulted from the mismatched union of two miscanthus species.

“One parent is from the mountains, and the other is from the warm wet zones in Asia, so it can grow in cold alpine environs,” Ms. Heaton said. “It has a really wide growing range for a plant with little diversity.” This particular variety, she added, is not invasive.

All of this makes it ideally suited for St. Mary’s Abbey, where the environmental ethos is not just sustainability, but harmony. Every green initiative they undertake is done in the spirit of “contribution towards our common home,” said Sister Lily, using the evocative phrase that Pope Francis employed to describe our unique relationship with planet Earth in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

Though they work the land, making juice from the apples they harvest, and gathering wool from their lambs, St. Mary’s Abbey devotes 33 acres to unspoiled woodlands, 10 acres to an enclosed garden that’s free of pesticides, and 3.5 acres to wetlands. The remaining acreage is leased for tillage and used for miscanthus, cows and calves. There’s abundant wildlife of all kinds, and a balance between the crops that humans need and those that support all the other species that call County Waterford home.