Mount St. Joseph University

They’ve Got Heart and Solar Panels



File Under: earthconnection, environment, solar, solar energy, solar panels, sustainability

The Mount’s founders, the Sisters of Charity, have maintained strong ties with the University since its founding in 1920, and they serve as an inspiration for many things, including sustainability. Many of the Sisters’ environmental initiatives are visible from campus, like EarthConnection and the newest addition to the hill—a set of massive solar panels. Through their heartfelt efforts, the Sisters contribute toward a brighter, greener future for everyone.


Beside the University’s upper east parking lot, between the Seton Center and Sports Complex, resides EarthConnection (EC), an over-sized four-car garage converted by the Mount’s founders, the Sisters of Charity. Constructed during the early 1990’s, EC was spearheaded by Sister Paula Gonzalez, Ph.D. with the intention of addressing the negative effects of our consumer society on the environment. Alongside Sister Paula Gonzalez, groups of volunteers converted the garage into a 3,900 sq. ft. meeting/office space with features such as experimental solar heating, solar electricity, super-insulated walls and windows, and more.

Building for the Future

The idea for EarthConnection was conceived during a 1990 chapter meeting, in which the Sisters discussed future plans focusing on sustainability, a passion of Sister Paula Gonzalez’s since the late 1960’s. Once EC was approved, a University of Cincinnati architecture professor and her senior class helped finalize the blueprints, and using land the Sisters had purchased in the 1980’s, construction began the following year. In addition to repurposing the over-sized garage, an L-shaped addition was added to create a large, more useable space.

When constructing EarthConnection, the builders also tried to use as many recycled or repurposed materials as possible. For instance, EC’s library contains materials salvaged from other renovated locations. The bookshelves came from the Mount when the science building was remodeled, and the table used to be in the Mount’s library. Using repurposed materials allowed the Sisters to give new life to something old.

But they did not take just large, whole products. The carpets in EarthConnection are all made from recycled pop bottles, and the tiles are made from clay and recycled ground glass from spent GE florescent light tubes. Furthermore, the window sills and counter tops are fashioned from repurposed solid core doors, and another set of these doors was used for the flooring in the loft office area.

EarthConnection’s goal was to create a sustainable, long-lasting building. At the time, building materials had a lifespan of 30 years before having to undergo repairs/maintenance, but EarthConnection was built using timber frames, one of the longest-lasting materials, with a projected lifespan of 300+ years. Other required materials were often donated by contractors who had ordered extra for jobsites but no longer needed them.

Open for Business

By May 1995, EarthConnection was finished and featured a variety of sustainable features. For instance, the center uses passive (requires no moving parts) and active (requires moving parts) heating and cooling. The passive heating is obtained using special windows which deflect or capture the natural heat of the sun depending on the time of the year. To achieve active heating/cooling, EC has 16 solar collectors, which use water to harness the natural heat of the sun. Using a series of pumps and water, the heat is transferred from the rooftop absorbers and moved to the ground in insulated trenches, where the heat is stored until it is needed for cold months. Photovoltaic (PV) panels are also located on top EarthConnection and are used to harvest solar electricity to power the center.

Outside the technological aspects of EarthConnection, the center features some amazing artwork. For instance, in the Earth Room, a Mount alum rendered a painting of Earthrise along a curved wall, which is made from aluminum cans. The mural was painted during the center’s first year of operation. More recently, the Mount’s Director of the Learning Center and Math & Science Center, Karl Zuelke, Ph.D., created a large mural of a butterfly outside EC’s front door.

Maintained by the Sisters of Charity, the center works toward building a greener world, for both the environment and humanity. Each year, they grow between 700-1,000 pounds of organic vegetables, which are donated to local charities. This year alone, they have donated 400 pounds of food to the Good Samaritan Health Center. EarthConnection also offers programs (both on- and off-site) to educate others about sustainability, climate change, the environment, and spirituality.

Striving for More

More recently, the Sisters have expanded their sustainable initiatives by beginning to convert the Motherhouse and corner houses to solar panel electricity. The process was directed by the Sisters’ Leadership Council, which includes Sr. Marge Kloos, retired Mount professor of pastoral studies who continues to part-time teach courses in social justice and theology, and Sr. Mary Bookser, former director of the Mount’s Service Learning and adjunct professor. Currently, they have six residences being powered by solar panels, which are located along Bender Road, just down the hill from the Mount’s west parking lot.

These sustainable structures and concern for the environment are just a few ways in which the University’s founders have contributed toward building a brighter, greener future for all people. To learn more about EarthConnection, please visit the EC website, and for further reading about the Mount’s green initiatives, try the article “A Brighter, Greener Future,” a short piece about the Mount’s conversion to LED lighting.