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Mapping one of the world’s largest landowners

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How one woman’s database can help the Catholic Church manage its lands

On May 24, 2016, Molly Burhans made her way to Rome’s Palazzo San Callisto, a pale brick building outside Vatican City that houses several powerful Catholic organizations. Burhans, then 26 years old, had flown to Rome hoping to meet with Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as well as members of the Secretariat of State, the church’s governing bureaucracy, which operates out of the Apostolic Palace, an ornate, 15th-century building where every pope besides Francis has lived.


Burhans had recently graduated from the Conway School, a small, progressive design school in Massachusetts, and almost immediately thereafter founded GoodLands, a nonprofit organization whose ambitious mission was to create an ecological land-use plan for the Catholic Church. She knew that the Vatican could not officially endorse an outside organization, but she was hoping for its tacit approval—along with its cooperation. “I knew that if anyone in hierarchy said, ‘We don’t want this to happen,’ it wasn’t going to happen,” she says of those first meetings.

A devout Catholic herself, Burhans attended a Jesuit college in upstate New York and even began the discernment process for becoming a nun. (Women interested in becoming Catholic sisters go through a sometimes years-long period of prayer, introspection, spiritual retreats, and convent visits. Burhans says she is still in that discernment process.)

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Courtesy of Goodlands
Molly Burhans in the Hall of Maps at the Vatican.

During her time at the monastery, Burhans couldn’t stop thinking about its grounds, which were in a dismal state, degraded by erosion and disuse. She saw it as an opportunity, not just for the monastery, but for the surrounding community, which might benefit from improved air or water quality. When she applied to Conway and was asked what she would do after graduation, she answered, “I would help religious communities with their land management.” A year and a half later, she was in Rome.

Coming had been something of a gamble. Burhans had no confirmed meetings, just some names and a handful of phone numbers. She was staying in a youth hostel, where she spent her mornings surrounded by hungover travelers, quietly building digital maps of a religious order called the Vincentian Family.

When she reached Cardinal Turkson and he agreed to meet, she felt relief but also trepidation. “I was hugely intimidated by the prospect of even talking to any of these people,” she says. Turkson, previously the archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana, had been influential in shaping the pope’s 2015 encyclical, or papal letter, Laudato Si’, which laid out moral, as well as ecological, arguments for environmental stewardship on the part of the Catholic Church. Caring for the natural environment, the pope argued, was just as important as—and ultimately intertwined with—caring for the poor.

Laudato Si’ proclaimed a vision of the church as an active agent in helping ethically and equitably manage the world’s natural resources. Burhans saw a way to implement that vision. Mapping the church—or, more accurately, developing a Catholic geographic information system (GIS), a vast and sophisticated database of all manner of geographic data—was the first step in better managing church-owned lands, whether that meant using a property to enhance wildlife habitat or provide affordable housing.

At the same time, Catholic organizations face increasing pressure to reexamine their lands. In Florida, a county commissioner recently argued that by occupying valuable parcels of land but not paying property taxes, churches are exacerbating the affordability crises that many cities are facing. In Massachusetts, the state Supreme Court recently ruled that only a portion of a Catholic shrine’s nearly 200 acres were used for worship purposes and therefore were exempt from paying local property tax. The shrine was sent a tax bill for $92,000.

“If the Church cannot demonstrate and articulate accountability for stewardship and for land-use, they are at risk for billions of dollars in taxation,” Burhans wrote to me shortly after the ruling last March. Tracking land-use regulations is “easier than ever” with GIS, she said. “The lack of property-management planning, lack of accountability and local community support for property asset stewardship in the Catholic Church is something that needs to be addressed before it’s a major crisis.”


With more than 1 billion adherents, the Catholic Church is one of the largest, if not the largest, nongovernmental landowners in the world. One estimate puts the church’s holdings close to 177 million acres, or 277,000 square miles. If those properties were grouped together and placed on a list of the world’s countries by land area, it would fall within the top 50, higher than both France and Spain. (Plus, it is unclear whether or not the 177 million acre figure includes land owned by affiliated institutions, such as Catholic schools and hospitals, which number in the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—worldwide.)

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Courtesy of Goodlands

No one knows exactly how much land the church owns because while the institution is centralized in terms of its doctrine, legally, it is quite diffuse. The Vatican doesn’t actually own church buildings in, say, Vermont or California. Decisions about acquisition or disposition are largely made at the diocesan level. (In the Catholic Church, a country like the U.S. is divided up into provinces, which are divided up into dioceses, which are made up of individual parishes, or churches.)

Still, in the U.S., Catholic organizations own property in nearly every county of all 50 states. Some of those parcels are thousands of acres in size. From Burhans’s point of view, that gives the church a tremendous responsibility. Right now, in a lot of places, Catholic land use is “horribly irresponsible,” Burhans says. “So much space goes unused. It’s a huge missed opportunity.”

And yet the church is only the primary benefactor of what Burhans is proposing. Catholic-owned lands could also play a role in aiding the work of environmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Mark Anderson, TNC’s director of conservation science for the eastern U.S. region, leads a small team of GIS analysts who map everything from microclimates along the East Coast to the contours of the ocean floor. A “high-end GIS shop,” he calls it. Anderson has been using GIS for close to 15 years, and in that time, he says the technology has become essential to everything TNC does. “We don’t make decisions anymore about where we’re going to work without lots of maps,” he says.

Anderson says one of the “hot topics” of the past few years has been the “connectivity question—how things can actually move and rearrange in response to climate change.” TNC has mapped critical wildlife corridors along ridgelines and waterways up and down the East Coast. A map of Catholic-owned properties could identify parcels that would contribute to that connectivity. TNC could work with Catholic leadership to manage those properties accordingly.

Equally important may be the clout the church wields. Like other world leaders, a pope often shapes public opinion. Laudato Si’ “had a huge resonance in the conservation world,” says Anderson, who was raised Catholic but no longer practices. “We’re always trying to make the case for conservation, especially to the general public, and for the last decade, we’ve spent much more [energy] making the economic case, that it makes good business sense. Which is a strong case. But the pope threw us back to more of the roots of conservation, where it was more of an ethical question.”


By the time Burhans left Rome, the Secretariat of State had given GoodLands its unspoken blessing. Since then, she has made remarkable progress. She secured more than $60,000 in seed funding from foundations and private donors, and made two more trips to Rome, once to present at a symposium on the intersection of technology and conservation. This past December, several of Burhans’s maps were displayed at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, once led by Galileo Galilei.

She has also amassed a close circle of advisors, including Dana Tomlin, a forebear of GIS technology and the founder of University of Pennsylvania’s Cartographic Modeling Laboratory, and Paul Cawood Hellmund, Conway’s former president, who says of Burhans, “She’s one of those people who doesn’t let go of something until she’s wrung out all that she can get from it.”

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Courtesy of Goodlands

Tomlin and Burhans first met in 2015, after she emailed him asking if he had any graduate students who might be interested in assisting GoodLands with GIS work. Tomlin, who also teaches at Yale University but lives in central Massachusetts, agreed to meet Burhans in Hartford, Connecticut, on his way home from New Haven one evening. But traffic was bad, and Burhans almost missed the meeting. “I quite literally was pulling away, thinking that she wasn’t going to be able to make it, looked out my rearview window, and like in a movie, she was jogging down the street,” Tomlin says.

They drove around Hartford for an hour, Tomlin listening with increasing interest to Burhans’s pitch. Her technical skills were balanced by a dazzling aesthetic sensibility that he says is rare in the computational world of GIS. “Combine that with the engaging prospect of doing something with a client that is so outrageously large and potentially impacting as the Catholic Church—that was just too enticing,” Tomlin says.

Another of Burhans’s closest advisors is Rosanne Haggerty, a lauded affordable-housing advocate and MacArthur fellow. As the executive director of the national nonprofit Community Solutions, Haggerty has decades of experience getting the most out of underperforming real estate. One of her most high-profile projects involved transforming the Times Square Hotel into supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals, an early (and award-winning) experiment in financing affordable housing.

Before that, during the mid-1980s, Haggerty was the coordinator for housing development at Brooklyn Catholic Charities. Brooklyn was a “very different place,” she says. The neighborhood had undergone a drastic demographic shift, and with fewer and fewer kids to attend its schools, Catholic Charities closed many of them. At the same time, it was struggling to serve a ballooning homeless population. Haggerty’s job, she says, was to “take these former convents, schools, and orphanages and help them serve a new purpose.”

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Courtesy of Goodlands

Today, the global Catholic Church finds itself in a similar situation, with millions of acres of underused land in a world threatened by climate change. GoodLands hopes to take what Haggerty accomplished in Brooklyn and scale it up. As Haggerty puts it, “What if the church everywhere had a deep understanding of its spatial influence, not just its spiritual influence?”


Burhans’s biggest break came in August 2016, when Jack Dangermond, the billionaire and GIS pioneer, invited Burhans to come to Redlands, California, for a four-month residency at Esri. Esri is one of the world’s largest distributors of GIS software. Its flagship software, ArcGIS, is used by everyone from foresters to UN Peacekeepers. Tomlin made the introduction, and Dangermond, though not particularly religious, says he understood GoodLands’ potential “almost instantly.”

Dangermond is well-known as a passionate conservationist, and his company has provided environmental organizations like TNC software licenses for a fraction of what they would cost to purchase. But Dangermond took particular interest in Burhans, whom he describes as a force of nature. “She’s demanding, she’s forceful, she’s assertive. She creates things out of nothing,” he says. “That’s the nature of a true entrepreneur.”

When she arrived in Redlands, Burhans was given an apartment, an office, and a team of computer scientists, cartographers, web developers, and public relations experts, as well as unlimited access to Esri’s Application Prototype Laboratory. Using data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University and other sources, Burhans and her team created what is likely the largest geodatabase of Catholic information in the world.

They first used the information to map jurisdictional boundaries—the church’s footprint. Hundreds of green circles representing provincial population dotted the globe. With a simple click, a person could see how many Catholics lived in the province of, say, Portland—which encompasses all of Oregon, Idaho, and Montana—relative to the total population, or the total number of priests.

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Courtesy of Goodlands

It was the first time a world religion had been visualized in such a way. As Dangermond puts it, “Hundreds of years ago the church used maps to understand the world. Today, these maps help [us] understand the church, in reference to the world.”

The base map also allowed Burhans to integrate existing GIS data, such as predicted changes in global temperature. (One map showed, in alarming oranges and reds, the expected increase in mortality rates as a result of warming temperatures.) In an effort to begin making good on her mission to improve land management, Burhans also analyzed the ecological value of more than 30,000 Catholic-owned properties in the U.S., using data from Esri’s Green Infrastructure Initiative, an open-access, web-based software platform released in 2016. The data allowed Burhans to assess the potential for conservation and wildlife connectivity on a parcel-by-parcel basis. She calculated that if 70 percent of Catholic parishes planted an average of just three trees, it could sequester as many as 10 million pounds of carbon each year.

Because of its scope—and because the environmental challenges facing communities around the world are immense and multifaceted—the applications of such a system are, quite literally, endless. In underdeveloped countries, population data could help aid organizations mobilize resources following, or perhaps even preceding, a natural disaster or refugee crisis. For Haggerty, this is what’s so powerful about GoodLands’ vision. “It’s both a big global idea and an idea that can guide on-the-ground action.”


Despite its progress, GoodLands is still a startup. When Burhans isn’t traveling, she lives and works rent-free out of Haggerty’s house in Hartford. When she is traveling, she does so “sparsely,” relying on websites like Airbnb or Couchsurfing. (This can have its perks: while couchsurfing in Washington, D.C., Burhans met a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Maryland, who is now including GoodLands in his dissertation.) Of course, for Burhans, living on a shoestring comes naturally. “I don’t mind at all,” she says. “I would probably live simply anyway.”

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Courtesy of Goodlands
1⁄3 of the maps that Goodlands exhibited in Casina Pio IV.

At the same time, for GoodLands to grow, the organization will require continued fundraising and dedicated staff. It currently faces a chicken-or-the-egg situation, with enough interest to warrant additional staff but too small a budget to hire them. (GoodLands’ budget in 2016 was just $35,000.) As the owner of the Catholic Geographic System, the GIS database Burhans built in Redlands, the organization is in a position to license data to clients. This, along with the sale of maps and atlases, could generate revenue. But the challenge, Burhans says, is finding a business model that strikes the right balance between GoodLands’ mission-driven approach and the financial needs of the organization.

GoodLands also faces institutional obstacles. Not everyone in the Catholic Church has embraced the pope’s encyclical, and there is the possibility that some organizations will not want their properties mapped. Paul Hellmund, Conway’s former president, says, “People are often fearful of geographic data and putting things down in black and white.” Not because they have anything to hide, he says, but because they worry about how that data will be used. GoodLands “is doing something that hasn’t been done,” he says. “Most everyone sees the potential for good in it, but there’s also a concern.”

Burhans is optimistic. She recently signed a contract with the Vincentian Family, the religious order she began mapping from her hostel in Rome, to map all of the properties within its Eastern province, an area that covers much of the East Coast, as well as a mission in Panama. That work could grow to encompass the order in its entirety, a community of more than 2 million members in more than 80 countries.

Regardless of its future success, Burhans has given the world something valuable, Jack Dangermond says. He says her ideas alone have inspired a new level of consciousness in and outside the church. “It’s like a language,” he says—a language that gives voice to “the relationship between a church, with all of its members, and the environment. She’s creating a kind of new enlightenment of the church, a new awareness of how it works, its trends, its patterns, its relationships.”

If it is the size of the Catholic Church that makes Burhans’s task especially daunting—and the stakes so uncommonly high—it is also what gives her hope. “Catholic healthcare is the largest network of its kind in the world, and Catholic education is largest of its kind,” she says. Her mission, she says, is to “make Catholic sustainability and conservation the largest network of its kind in the world. I think that’s the challenge.”

Editor: Sara Polsky



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