By Michael Seidel, Special to   Published Aug 24, 2008 at 5:30 AM

"Now, when he has enough, he'll stop," Sister Janet Weyker says. She's holding a baby robin; the bird chirp excitedly as Weyker feeds him worms out of a tin of compost and wild black raspberries from a cup. Since the robin's mother disappeared, Weyker has taken over, tending to the fledling's hunger at mealtimes.

This type of stewardship is precisely what motivated Weyker and several other sisters of the Racine Dominican order to found the Eco-Justice Center, a 15-acre learning center, farm and homestead located at 7133 Michna Rd.. in Racine.

As a whole, the Racine Dominicans, a Catholic community of vowed women and lay associates, are committed to the ideas of education and justice. But back in 2000, the nuns saw a gap in their order's efforts to extend those concepts to the environment.

"(We thought) the environment is in crisis and we should really do something," Sister Janet says, "I didn't want to just talk about it anymore, I really want to make that dream a reality."

Weyker spent the next four years fundraising and preparing for the project by studying Earth Literary at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana.

In 2004, Weyker and five other sisters moved into the center's 1912 Dutch Colonial house and began realizing their dream. A year later, local architect Bruce Zahn volunteered to design an addition to the house that would double its size while retaining the integrity and character of the original structure. The sisters then contracted with Milwaukee's Pragmatic Construction to build the addition using only sustainable building materials.

Reclaimed wood from the old Usinger Mansion in Mequon provides part of the flooring. The marble counter tops were shower dividers that had been sitting in storage for 20 years at the Siena Center, their order's Mother House. The interior of the Center's house was repainted with eco-friendly, no volatile organic compound (no-vac) paint. The shingles are made of recycled plastic that won't need to be replaced for another 50 years.

"Fifty-five solar panels produce all the energy that we use in the summertime," Weyker explains. Additionally, the house uses geothermal heating for its heating and air conditioning. "Geothermal is a system where there are pipes buried in the ground 9.5 feet deep, and there's a constant temperature of 55 degrees."

So in the summer, the house is kept at a naturally cool temperature; the sisters use so little electricity that they get a check back from WE Energies. When winter comes, they only have to raise the temperature 12 degrees to reach 67. "We're conservative in our use of heat."

The center's education station is built on the foundation of the property's original house, which was constructed in 1858. "We can almost sense the presence of all those people who lived and worked on this land before us," Weyker says. "To reverence (sic) and honor them, we are preserving the buildings."

The education station, which was constructed using grants from the SC Johnson and Brookwood Foundations, is used as a living classroom. Groups of area students spend time volunteering and learning about sustainability and respect for life. The top of the center serves as a fiber arts studio and gift shop, where the sisters sell items made from the fleece sheared from the center's three alpacas.

The Eco-Justic Center is also home to a host of other animals -- two dogs, some goats, rabbits, araucana chickens (used for eggs), ducks, Guinea hens, turkeys and a few squawking, cranky geese.

Two organic gardens, totaling about half an acre, provide the sisters with food throughout the summer. Actually, they do more than just feed themselves. The sisters grow and donate a staggering surplus.

"Last year, we were able to give over 1,900 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to the North Side Food Pantry and Siena Center."

The center also planted a rain garden in May. It comprises over 300 native plants that were provided by a local preservation organization called Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network. The rain garden is fed by runoff from the house's roof; water flows into the ground through a buried drainage pipe. The water permeates the ground, creating soil so rich that within the next two years, the garden won't need to be watered, fertilized or weeded.

In four short years, Weyker and the other sisters have created an idyllic place that vibrates with possibility. It's a retreat from the pace and waste of modern society, all within walking distance of bars, restaurants and Highway 32. They've proven that it's possible to uphold the center's mission of community, contemplation, creativity, and cultivation, even within an urban context.