A young cartographer is helping the church catalog its land holdings so it might address the environment, human migration, and sustainable land stewardship.
At first, Molly Burhans thought she’d be a ballet dancer.
It had been her dream through middle school, her focus in high school, and her major in college—until a foot injury caused her to drop out and move back home to Buffalo, New York.
Although that seemed like a setback, it placed her on a path to becoming possibly the most awarded and well-known Catholic environmentalist in the world at this moment. She is almost certainly the most well-known cartographer. In 2021 the Sierra Club honored the then 32-year-old with its EarthCare Award, previously awarded to the likes of David Attenborough and the John Muir Trust. In 2019 Burhans was named Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations. In 2018 she was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship for her innovations in applying new technology to help the Catholic Church respond to climate change. She has participated in the Vatican Youth Symposium, the Vatican Arts and Technology Council, and the United Nations Youth Assembly. She has been an invited speaker at Harvard University, Yale University, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Stories have been written about her in the Boston Globe, America magazine, Forbes, and the New Yorker. She is planning a TED Talk.
When she was 18 and back in Buffalo, she squatted in an old, abandoned mansion with a group of fellow Freegans—a commune-style community loosely organized around not spending money and living off what other people throw away. The Freegans became urban guerilla gardeners, and the seeds of Burhans’ future were sown: She started to see how to make land work for good.
In Buffalo her mother, Debra, taught data analytics, cybersecurity, and computer science at Canisius College. Her father, William, was a senior cancer scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (he died of prostate cancer in 2019). Molly Burhans grew up teaching herself software programs and building computer graphics, a foreshadowing of her future profession.
Although she attended parochial school and Canisius, a Catholic college, neither she nor her family were particularly religious. As Burhans studied philosophy, theology, and physics and read about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, she experienced one of what she calls her “two conversions.”
“I thought all these people who believed in God were nuts!” says Burhans. “But I began to think, ‘What if science could cure every disease and we could live forever?’ Why would we want eternal life if it was anything but love? And God is love.”
Burhans began having long discussions with a Jesuit spiritual mentor and working through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a collection of meditations and prayers to deepen one’s relationship with God.
She wondered if she was crazy. “I went to the doctor. I said, ‘I believe in God,’ and thought I might have had a concussion or something,” she admits. The doctor asked her, “Do you believe you are God?” When she said no, he pronounced her healthy.
She traveled to Guatemala to work for six months with several NGOs, where she met “real saints, not television ‘Christians.’ They were mothers, supporting villages that had been decimated by genocide. They were doctors, bringing their expertise to help people without resources,” she says. In the healing work of these workers, caring for the land and using it to provide sustainably played a critical role.
Burhans wondered if she was being called to become a nun. Back home, she continued her undergraduate studies and volunteered at a local convent. The convent’s sprawling grounds of forest and grass lawns made her imagine other ways to use that land that might benefit the community, such as growing food and managing the woodlands responsibly.
“I thought, if I’m going to be a nun, I need to study sustainable land management and design and bring that to the order,” says Burhans. She imagined becoming some kind of regenerative land steward, perhaps a nun park ranger or nun farmer.
Her second conversion was an ecological one. She researched how the Catholic Church used its properties and discovered it is the largest nongovernmental landholder on the planet. No one is really sure how many acres it has, she says, but some estimates say it is more than 177 million acres—more than France and Spain put together.
If climate change is to be addressed with intelligent stewardship, never mind simple effectiveness, the Catholic Church would have to get involved, Burhans reasoned. Her faith and professional passions merged, and she saw a new path forward for herself.
She enrolled in a master’s program in ecological design at the Conway School in Massachusetts, where she worked with ArcMap, a software that organizes information geographically, layering data onto maps in ways that help visualize connections and relationships. She built a school project analysis of the habitat conditions of urban corridors that might attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Her ability to work so inventively with the complex program impressed the faculty—and the software manufacturer, Esri, which provided her an essential program license and other support as she began to move toward the work she increasingly felt called to do.
Since the largest worldwide networks of health care and education were Catholic, Burhans assumed there would also be a Catholic network of nature conservancy. If so, she wanted to work with it. She saw applications for how the church might make use of visual storytelling and data sharing.
Her passion for her faith is inextricably bound up with her passion for environmentalism. To her, the church is ethically required to care passionately for the earth as well.
“I asked my little network of Jesuit and nun friends and my renegade laypeople interested in environmentalism: ‘Who in the church is doing this work? I’m sure since we have the largest network of aid in the world that we must have the largest network of conservation,’ ” says Burhans. “And the answer was, ‘No, we don’t.’ Wow! What a gap!”
She appeared uniquely positioned to fill this gap. She founded GoodLands, a nonprofit organization aimed at visually mapping the global landholdings of the Catholic Church, creating visual data that would assist in decision-making and strategic planning around sustainability efforts.
The advantages of making this happen were clear to Burhans. “[The church owns] more land than pretty much anyone, the planet is in dire straits, and in the next century we will see migration across borders,” she says. “A transnational property owner can help with peacekeeping and supporting refugees in a way that no nation alone could do. We can help with biodiversity preservation, with all these environmental factors that are so determinative of human health and multiply our Christian vision.”
But first, the church needed to know what it owned, where its lands were located, and what geographic constraints and challenges existed nearby. In short, it needed a map.
And Burhans discovered by working locally that even for one individual parish tracing land ownership and use could be confounding. Most records were not digitized or accessible; many were out-of-date.
In 2016 Burhans spoke at a Catholic Relief Services conference in Nairobi, Kenya about how digital information, including mapped data, could support and plan sustainability efforts. On her way home, she stopped in Rome, and the then 26-year-old bravely began emailing officials at the Vatican, hoping someone might point her toward where to find more comprehensive digital records of the church’s holdings.
“I had this sense at 26 that someone should get their hands around this,” she says. “I had no powerful network. I was in Buffalo working with some nuns at a soup kitchen. I knew this idea was way too big for me.”
Remarkably, the Vatican’s Office of the Secretariat of State agreed to meet with her. Burhans asked for the cartography department—there wasn’t one—and where church maps were kept. Two priests pointed to ancient painted frescoes. And then there was the Atlas Hierarchicus, published in 1901 with hand-drawn and now largely inaccurate boundaries.
She’d been thinking there’d be a room like NASA has with giant monitors and dashboards of continually updated digital information. At a time when a few keyboard clicks can access the great libraries of the world, it was startling to discover that the Vatican was not yet highly digitized and that some of its own data was not readily accessible.
“They couldn’t make a global map because there wasn’t a global church,” says Burhans. “But even governments don’t know what they have. The church is not alone in this.”
Her focus switched from analyzing data to searching out data.
Adding to the complexity, there’s a wide variety of land usage among church properties: monasteries, rectories, convents, agricultural lands, strips of urban real estate, and surprisingly eccentric holdings such as an “entire commercial district in one of Germany’s largest cities,” an “entire mountain in the Middle East,” and “oil wells in Los Angeles,” according to Burhans. “The network is mind-boggling when you dig into it. There’s this diversity of investment, and tracking it can go awry.”
Pope Francis—with whom Burhans met briefly in 2018—expressed interest in establishing at least a pilot Vatican cartography effort with Burhans at the helm. This past fall, GoodLands developed a full proposal for what undertaking such an endeavor would require. The proposal is still with the Vatican.
Meanwhile, individual Catholic relief groups, orders, and dioceses have brought projects to Burhans—many of which she undertook pro bono. Five people out of her current staff of eight are volunteers.
“There are bishops all over the world, religious orders all over the world, asking for our work,” Burhans says. “I’ve worked with half the Ivy Leagues and am scraping by financially, but my poverty is a microphone. I claim that poverty with pride. We do not sell board seats. We will not work with funders that have ties to real estate agendas. We never had a dime of unrestricted funding, ever.”
She’s had offers of funding that were linked to GoodLands turning over data, and she’s turned them down. “I am not an anticorruption activist—that’s work for investigative journalists and Catholics who care about their church. But I will not sell out the church. The integrity of our data must be pristine,” she says. Burhans is focused right now on creating a business model that will allow GoodLands to generate enough income on some projects to keep the doors open and allow her to hire staff while still focusing on nonprofit work.
Some data can be shared publicly. On the GoodLands website, more than 100 interactive maps are available, exploring topics like which dioceses have the largest carbon footprint and which regions have the most significant shortages of priests.
She does this work with an awareness of how colonization, politics, and corruption helped shape and influence the scope and nature of the church’s landholdings—and how palpable the current sense of shame around those issues can be for both church officials and parishioners.
The work of communicating what any large organization owns can run the risk of exposing information that has comfortably slumbered for decades—even centuries. “It’s not our job to trace colonization or corruption,” says Burhans. “There may be some shame in knowing what we have, but we must face it intelligently and respectfully if we are to make things better.”
Take the oil wells in Los Angeles. “Oil is obviously a huge environmental issue,” says Burhans. “But before we start blaming, we need to recognize that those oil wells are not owned by a massive corporation, and they enable kids to get a good education. Instead of saying, ‘You guys are terrible!’ we need to meet in the middle and all get better together, discussing things like, ‘How can we help this company divest its holdings and become greener?’ ”
Most historical conflict has been about land and/or religion, so wading into this arena is bound to raise anxiety, Burhans realizes. Land activists around the world receive death threats—Burhans included—and there are security issues to confront when accessing and analyzing information that some people may not wish to be made visible. “Land and religion are the two things we probably fought most about,” she says. “But these are also the two things that have been the most powerful, transformative levers of change.”
There are important uses for map data that reach beyond Burhans’ environmental focus. The New Yorker reported on GoodLands’ mapping of abuse cases involving about 450 Catholic priests, tracing them geographically and depicting layers of visual data including accusations, convictions, and sentences. The maps help reveal that in dioceses where formal policies protective of minors were in place, the numbers of cases dropped.
Mapping data about Catholic health care and education may also help the church track usage, identify future needs, and place resources where they are most effective, suggests Burhans.
One-off projects for specific dioceses or regions are meaningful and helpful, but Burhans looks beyond those to her vision of being able to globally envision where the church is on the planet and how it might play a pivotal role in addressing migration and climate change and maximizing the productive potential of its lands.
“We are brought here to be excellent and show big love—that’s what being Catholic is about,” says Burhans. “We are brought here to respect the science of Gregor Mendel and others. We are brought here to not regress in fear—but to take the best science, the best technology, the best understanding of the world and create novel collaborations and move forward with integrity. I have so much hope that if we can make our land work for good, we will not only solve the climate crisis but also fix and revolutionize our relation to God’s creation.”
Her spiritual and ecological conversions were symbiotic, each sparking and deepening the other. At this moment, Burhans remains in an ongoing process of discernment about whether to become a nun and precisely how her spiritual and vocational lives might interact. Although not quite ballet, it is, after all, a sort of dance.
Image: Ashoka Foundation
Pamela Hill Nettleton is a writer and a professor. She teaches communication and media studies at the University of St. Thomas.