Monday, December 07, 2015

Google "nun bags deer"

The nun that this story is about is from my hometown and I actually borrowed her name for one of the characters in my Marienstadt stories. She made quite a big splash on Social Media this week. Some people were upset that she shot a deer but I grew up in a hunting family and I understand that culling is necessary. No matter what some people say, being shot is a better ending for some of these animals than starving to death or being eaten by coyotes.

Sister John Paul Bauer stood over the magnificent, 10-point buck, the largest deer she'd ever seen in the wild in Elk County. The 60-year-old Benedictine nun recalled the events of the past few minutes, savoring a memory that deer hunters will ever experience. Just before 9 a.m., about three hours after first climbing into her tree stand on a friend's land near Weedville on Nov. 30, the first day of the 2015 rifle hunting season for deer, she had finished praying the rosary.

"I always pray the rosary in my tree stand," she explained. "It's a tradition."

Hours in a tree stand are a contemplative time, when a hunter wants to remain as still and quiet as possible. Sister John Paul had then started to pour herself a cup of coffee from her thermos, reinforcement for the leggings and the orange hunting coat she wore under and over her habit against the 23-degree air.

Suddenly a herd of does "came flying up this steep embankment," startling her to the point that she dropped her thermos. Strangely the clatter of the metal cup did not cause the antlerless deer to pause even a moment. Something unusual was pushing those does, she pondered as she studied the scene.

Then she spotted the two bucks sparring behind the does. Her 10-pointer and an eight-point in pitched battle, actually rising on their hind legs, something few will ever witness first-hand. The sound of their rattling antlers came to her ears.

When the bucks backed off one another for a breather about a hundred yards from her stand, Sister John Paul leveled the scope of her Winchester 30-30 on the 10-pointed and triggered off a shot.

The big buck, which was later weighed at about 200 pounds, fell to the forest floor at 9:05 a.m. After making sure of her kill, the theology teacher at Elk County Catholic High School in St. Marys retreated down the mountainside to the home of the landowner, Shirley Burke, for some help in retrieving the heavy animal. They called Sister Jacinta Conklin, another nun at St. Joseph's Monastery in St. Marys who was hunting solo in another location, and together the three woman dragged the deer out of the woods.

Deer hunting has been a tradition among the nuns at the monastery for decades, just as it is with nearly the entire community in St. Marys. Sister John Paul bought her first rifle, the Winchester, soon after she arrived there and has not missed a first day for 15 years or so.

Sister John Paul professed her final vows with the Benedictine Sisters of Elk County in 2002. She earned her nursing degree in 1975, two years after graduating from high school, and then went on to serve as a nurse with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Growing up in St. Marys, she had watched as her father and brothers ventured out on many a first day, "but I was never invited."

She's bagged a few other bucks along the way, one from that same tree stand near Weedville, as well as a 200-pound bear. Her best buck prior to this year was a six-pointer with a much smaller body.

"You can tell the conservation efforts have paid off, because the deer are getting bigger," she noted.

Antler restrictions imposed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in recent years encourage hunters to pass up younger bucks, allowing them to gain additional maturity and growth before being harvested. A photo of Sister John Paul on the Facebook page of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie went viral, attracting more than a million views and the normal criticisms of anti-hunters. She has taken the attacks in stride, noting, "In this area pretty much everyone hunts. It's good conservation.

"I'm a person first, a normal human being who likes to hunt and happens to be serving God."

On the website of the diocese, she further explained, "You have to maintain the population that can be fed naturally off the land. If you get an overabundance, then the deer starve. Likewise, if you overkill, then that's not good either. So there's a balance."

As a Benedictine, she believes that Christ is in everything, even the hunted. "You don't just hunt for the sake of killing. You are part of nature. You're part of a cycle. You're part of creation."

Most of the venison from the big buck was donated to several local families, including one that has a Christmas tradition of eating deer stew as the main meal that day. The sisters at St. Joseph's share the prized and tender back straps.

Jeff Crawford of Whitetail Taxidermy in St. Marys will mount the 16-inch-spread, almost perfectly symmetrical rack.

Update: This is the response I posted on American News about the controversyI grew up in the same town as Sister John Paul and many members of my family were hunters. What people who are not from rural areas do not understand is that resources are limited and without reasonable hunting seasons to cull the herds, the deer population (and bear, and elk, and turkey, etc.) would soon grow larger than the area has resources to support. This means that the poor animals would begin starving and, mostly likely, be eaten alive by coyotes and other predators. The State of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has done a heroic job in reclaiming land ruined by strip mining in the 1950s and 60s. Much of that land is coming back and is home to a flourishing wildlife herd. But, without conscientious management, these herds would grow too fast and the animals would contract and spread diseases as well as starve t death. Sister John Paul is an experienced, responsible hunter, and the deer she shot were used for food by people who appreciate it. I wish there were more hunters who acted as responsibly as she does.

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