Parts of the west are experiencing severe drought. Things have gotten so bad that even holy water has to be rationed out. From Golden, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports.
CURWOOD: The old saying in the arid West is whisky is for drinkin' and water is for fightin'. So, when your mission is peace and harmony at the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado, and the Holy Water starts to run dry, you face a special set of problems. Shelley Schlender reports.
[CHURCH BELLS RINGING]
SCHLENDER: On a beautiful Sunday morning, thousands of pilgrims drive up the buff-colored foothills near the city Golden to visit Mother Cabrini Shrine.
[CHILD SAYING “WATCH MOMMY, WHEE!” AND FOOTSTEPS]
SCHLENDER: Some climb the 373 steps called the "Stairway of Prayer" to see the outdoor statue of America's first saint. Mother Cabrini is known for the founding of hospitals and orphanages. In fact, this site was originally a summer camp for orphans, although now it's used primarily as a shrine; popular with hundreds of the faithful who flock to the Sunday Service. But what draws most visitors here is Mother Cabrini's mountain spring.
[WATER POURING INTO JUG]
SCHLENDER: On this day, dozens of visitors gather around small, outdoor spigots not far from the chapel to fill paper cups, quart bottles and plastic gallon jugs with the mineral-laden water.
FEMALE 1: It tastes like very clear.
MALE : A little bit sweet, like water.
GIRL: Mandy, my dog. I got water for Mandy because maybe it will help her because she's getting older, and it might cleanse her body or something because it's holy water.
FEMALE 2: We use it when we say our prayers, you know, to bless ourselves with it. We don't take a lot, but we take enough to keep us through the month.
[WATER POURING FROM SPIGOT]
SCHLENDER: Her frugal attitude is especially warranted this year, because Colorado is facing its worst drought in a century. In fact, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who oversee the shrine, have asked people to limit themselves to one gallon of the special water per visit. While the Catholic Church does not consider the spring an official miracle site, the visitors and sisters here believe in its healing powers.
SISTER BERNADETTE: People drink the water and they've had stomach problems that all of a sudden are gone.
SCHLENDER: Sister Bernadette lives at the Mother Cabrini Shrine with a handful of other nuns and caretakers.
SISTER BERNADETTE: And a lot of people rub the water on their eyes, because of eye problems and whatnot. And there has been a lot of cures with eyes.
SCHLENDER: To Sister Bernadette, the spring is miraculous in many ways. When Mother Cabrini bought the property in the early 1900's, government officials said there was no water here. As Sister Bernadette tells it, shortly after that pessimistic pronouncement, Mother Cabrini tapped some rocks with her walking cane, and then something amazing happened.
SISTER BERNADETTE: Water started to gush up from the ground, and ever since that day the water is still flowing from that same stream. It has continued to flow since then. It's never frozen.
[SOUND OF VOICES]
SCHLENDER: The spring is now housed in a small stone building with outdoor spigots on the side, where pilgrims to fill up.
[WATER POURING INTO PLASTIC JUG]
SCHLENDER: For 90 years it has supplied enough water for those who live at the shrine, as well as for all its visitors. At least it used to. Colorado's severe drought has reduced the spring's water flow by 40 percent, and some say housing developments in the mountains may also be drawing down the water. So Sister Bernadette says the nuns are careful about their personal water use.
SISTER BERNADETTE: We've joked about doing showers the Navy way, which is to wet, turn off the water, put soap on, and then put the water on. But we are careful with all bathing, and showers.
SCHLENDER: When people come up for weekend retreats, the sisters now send the extra towels and linens to a laundry down in Golden. And the gardens on the grounds here have not been watered at all this past summer. The nuns have even resorted to hauling in Port-o-Potties to replace the flush toilet bathrooms.
[SOUND OF VOICES]
SCHLENDER: While a stopover here is not quite as pretty or convenient as it used to be, most visitors say the changes are worth it.
MALE: That's right. [Laughter] You can't waste a miracle. [Laughter] So you've got to conserve it too, you know? It's like everything else.
FEMALE: I hope that people do not waste this water because it is precious, very precious, I think, you know?
[GUITAR MUSIC AND SINGING FROM CHURCH SERVICE]
SCHLENDER: According to Sister Bernadette, this water conservation fits Mother Cabrini's philosophy.
SISTER BERNADETTE: If she were alive today, she would tell us to be very careful with the water, not to take God's gift of creation and water and just be frivolous about it, but to be extremely careful. And she would want us to share it with the others.
SCHLENDER: To further reduce demands on the mountain spring, staff at the Mother Cabrini Shrine have applied for permits that would allow them to tap a nearby municipal water source for their every day water needs. The nuns say they plan to use that water carefully too, because any water is a gift from God.
[PEOPLE SINGING “HALLELUJAH!”]
For Living on Earth, I'm Shelley Schlender in Golden Colorado.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
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