This is the story of an order of Episcopal nuns, a remote corner of southern Appalachia, and a commitment to teaching young minds. Bridging the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, to a quiet hollow in Bat Cave, the story began more than a century ago. And now it will go on forever.
“The Sisters were seeking a place to get away and recharge, so with some relatives in this area, they decided to come down to western North Carolina,” said Sister Teresa Martin, Superior of the Community of the Transfiguration.
That was in 1901. Just three years earlier, Mother Eva Lee Matthews and Sister Beatrice Henderson founded the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati. The women’s ministry focused on working with mothers and children in the inner city in an effort to help them survive the rigors of urban life at the turn of the 20th century.
“Those first few years were terribly stressful, as you can imagine,” Sister Teresa said. “So they needed a place where they could go to be rejuvenated.”
The two sisters enjoyed three weeks in the shadow of Chimney Rock at the Esmeralda Inn. So entranced by the region’s natural beauty, they began to look for property in the area to which they could return in the coming years.
“They found an old farmhouse off of Highway 9 and rented it for $25 a year,” said Sister Teresa.
While the home was charming, it was the surrounding landscape that was truly revitalizing. Tucked between the Rocky Broad River and the steep slopes of the Hickory Nut Gorge, the stunning natural beauty was exactly what they were seeking to soothe their spirits.
“They kept coming down for rejuvenation, as did other sisters who joined the order,” Sister Teresa said.
After a few years, they purchased the house and several acres of land surrounding it. “They began bringing children down from Cincinnati to give them an experience out of the city,” she said.
Helping the community then
“Sister Beatrice, the second Superior of the Community of the Transfiguration, had a special passion for the mountains and the mountain people,” said Sister Teresa. “Right from the start, she began having wonderful relationships with the people living in the mountains.”
During the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Sister Beatrice and the order began buying land from local residents who were at risk of losing their property due to financial hardship.
“She wanted to give them some substance to live on. That’s how we ended up with how many acres we did — more than 400.”
These days, the sisters make the journey from Cincinnati to Bat Cave with less frequency. But their connection to their beloved mountain land remains as strong now as it was a century ago, as does their yearning to give back to the local community.
Worried about their long-term ability to care for their land, members of the Community of the Transfiguration began discussions with Tom Fanslow, Land Protection Director at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), in 2008.
“We knew we wanted to keep it from development. We wanted it to stay as pristine as possible,” explained Sister Teresa.
A long engagement
Figuring out exactly how to do that, while also remaining true to the order’s values, proved to be a lengthy process. But it was more than worthwhile.
“There is a folkloric aspect to it. Some of our projects, like this one, take a very long time. You just have to have patience. If you do, good things will happen,” said Fanslow.
“Tom helped us figure out what we wanted to do to protect this property, to envision the potential and possibilities,” said Sister Teresa. “It was a long process, and we discussed a lot of ideas.”
Nearly a decade after the first conversation, their collective vision was finally realized when the Community of the Transfiguration placed 410 acres into a permanent conservation easement with CMLC.
Hosting more than five miles of water resources — including two miles of the Rocky Broad River and several major waterfalls — and teeming with natural heritage, such as cliffs, rock outcroppings, and rare flora and fauna, the tract had long been identified as the conservancy’s highest conservation priority in the Upper Broad River watershed.
Now permanently protected, the property will forever safeguard clean water, provide harbor for many plant and animal species, and preserve the scenic views within the Hickory Nut Gorge.
The project was made possible with funding from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund as well as generous private donations, including contributions from the Community of the Transfiguration.
“There were a lot of bumps in the road to get here, but it has been a joy and privilege to be part of this wonderful organization,” said Sister Teresa. “We (and CMLC) are kind of married to each other now, but it was a long engagement.”
Helping the community now and forever
But conservation of the sisters’ land is only one half of the story.
“Right from the start, our ministry has focused on education of the children,” explained Sister Teresa.
In addition to the protection of the property’s abundant natural resources, Fanslow understood that the order desired the land to be used in a way that supports its mission of education and service.
To achieve that mission, the Community of the Transfiguration conveyed ownership of 368 acres of the now protected property to CMLC to establish the Hickory Nut Gorge Teaching and Research Reserve, continuing the sisters’ legacy of education.
The land will be utilized as a multi-discipline outdoor classroom for students and researchers from local schools, colleges and other educational programs.
Currently, Warren Wilson College faculty are instructing students on the tract. Dr. J.J. Apodaca and his students have used the property to gather data for his work on the genetics of the green salamander (Aeneus aneides), which is endangered in North Carolina.
Muddy Sneakers and Lake Lure Classical Academy have also expressed interest in hosting students at the new teaching and research reserve.
Said Fanslow, “the potential for how this project can give back, not just in intrinsic conservation value, but to educate the next generation, is immense.”
“It is wonderful to be able to find this use for it. We still have a great love for the community,” said Sister Teresa. “Our roots here in the mountains are deep.”
Now, and forever, those roots will hold tightly to their cherished land — and keep growing the minds of generations seeking to learn from it.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.