Pope Francis’ words from Rome reinforce the efforts of local Catholics
When parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish decided in 2009 to build a parish hall/gym, there was no question it should be environmentally friendly.
“We felt it was incumbent upon us to build the building as green as cost would allow,” said Frank Handler, who was parish administrator at the time. “Being responsible as Catholics, that’s what we had to do.”
Long before Pope Francis issued his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ in June 2015 — urging all people to “protect our common home” — parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe in West Seattle were being good stewards of their patch of God’s creation.
Solar panels that help power the parish campus, an organic garden to benefit local food banks, “green” construction projects and less reliance on disposable goods are all ways the OLG community works to reduce its environmental footprint.
“We’re definitely committed that whatever we do will include care of creation,” said Helen Oesterle, pastoral associate at the parish.
Other local Catholics also heard the pope’s words as a familiar call.
“We have a history of care for creation that predates the encyclical,” said Patty Bowman, social outreach director at St. James Cathedral.
St. James parishioner Rose Southall said her late husband, Jack, served on the parish’s technology committee. He long advocated for environmentally friendly projects, such as diverting the cathedral’s waste steam to heat the parish rectory and converting the cathedral to more energy-efficient lighting.
“As I look back on it, [Laudato Si’] confirmed all the things we had been doing,” Southall said.
Jessie Dye. Courtesy photo.
‘Profound for Catholics’
Every couple of weeks since the release of Laudato Si’, Jessie Dye has been invited to speak to parishes about the encyclical.
“This is profound for Catholics. This is a key theological reflection,” said Dye, program and outreach director for Earth Ministry.
The Seattle-based organization engages faith communities in environmental stewardship and activism through its Greening Congregations program. It has awarded the Greening Congregations banner to St. James Cathedral and St. Patrick’s in Seattle, but several other parishes are involved in the organization’s efforts: Church of the Assumption and Sacred Heart in Bellingham, St. Leo the Great in Tacoma, Christ Our Hope in downtown Seattle, and West Seattle’s Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Although there was an uptick in interest after the encyclical’s release, Catholics in Western Washington have been concerned about the environment for years, said Ed Foster, the archdiocese’s property and construction director.
“I think it’s been pretty consistent,” he said. “Given this part of the country, there’s always been a higher awareness.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s efforts stand as an example of what motivated parish communities can accomplish.
Solar panels on the gym roof, installed in 2014 with the assistance of a Bonneville Environmental Foundation grant, help power the parish campus. The panels are connected to a kiosk in the building’s lobby that displays information on their energy output, weather conditions and clean energy. The parish administration building is designed so solar panels can be added in the future.
Although cost kept the parish from completing environmental certifications for the new hall, the project qualified for the EPA’s Energy Star designation. Handler said the building likely would have qualified for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.
But environmental stewardship at OLG goes beyond buildings.
The structures, Handler said, are like hardware that needs software to run efficiently. At OLG, that “software” is the hall’s sustainable-use policy. It governs the types of items — such as reusable plates and utensils — that can be used at facility events, helping enforce the parish’s commitment to reduce waste and increase recycling and composting.
Other policies also help fulfill that commitment. Parishioners are encouraged to drop off items like bike chains and drink pouches that aren’t usually recyclable, so the parish can send the items to Terracycle, which turns them into usable products. OLG’s peace garden and organic produce garden help supply the West Seattle and White Center food banks.
Our Lady of Guadalupe also promotes environmental stewardship in many smaller ways. Since the encyclical’s release, Oesterle said, the parish has held a film series, advocated for parishioners to become involved in environmental issues and integrated concern for the environment in its Year of Mercy observances.
“We don’t want to lose momentum on this,” she said.
Science projects help Our Lady of Guadalupe seventh-graders like Stephan Santistevan and Dominique Monroe learn about caring for God’s creation. Photo: Janis Olson
At Our Lady of Guadalupe School, Catholic social teaching — including the care of God’s creation — is an important focus, said middle-school teacher Nathan Franck.
So sixth-graders get to dive into the ecology of watersheds through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s School Cooperative Program (formerly Salmon in the Classroom). Students raise salmon from eggs, study the quality and ecosystems of streams, and eventually release the young fish into the wild.
And Franck uses experiments with solar and wind energy to teach his eighth-graders the science of photovoltaics, electrical circuits, and more — a lesson plan developed with the help of the Bonneville grant that paid for the parish’s solar panels.
Examining the human impact on the environment is part of being a responsible citizen, Franck said. “I try to instill these values in kids through the lens of science.”
Small changes, big impacts
Parishes around the archdiocese have been doing what they can to go green, but cost can be a significant roadblock. LEED certification requirements, for instance, are often prohibitively expensive, Foster said.
Still, small changes can have big impacts. St. Joseph School in Seattle has installed solar panels, and Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Seattle uses a solar water heater to reduce energy costs, Foster said.
Changes in building and energy codes have helped move local parishes in a greener direction, he said. Renovation projects, such as the updated electrical system at Christ Our Hope, give parishes the opportunity to look for environmentally friendly options.
At St. James Cathedral, environmentally friendly changes include installing high-efficiency light bulbs and low-flow toilets. Parish events use free-trade coffee and tea and compostable items, and individual bottles of water are banned to reduce plastic waste. Outdoors, produce from the parish’s organic garden supplements its meal program for the needy.
The most visible effort at St. James might be its annual environmental health fair. The May event brings presenters from a variety of groups — including the Duwamish River Clean Up Coalition, Seattle City Light and gardening/ecology nonprofit Seattle Tilth — to the cathedral during the time usually reserved for after-Mass coffee hour.
“The parish is definitely a forward-moving parish,” said parishioner Liberty Sponek, who serves on the fair’s planning committee. A Bellingham transplant, Sponek was drawn to St. James because of its engagement in environmental stewardship.
With Our Lady of Guadalupe’s focus on the environment, it seemed natural for the parish to welcome Pope Francis’ environmental message in a special way. On that June evening in 2015, more than 200 people gathered for an interfaith service featuring prayer, Scripture readings, music and speakers.
Then the pastor, Father Jack Walmesley, commissioned the people with a question: “Who will bring this message of hope to the world?” They responded: “Send us, Lord, your servants are listening.”
But the people of OLG and the Seattle Archdiocese weren’t just listening. They were already working on building a greener future.
Call to action
Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ highlights the crisis that climate change poses for humanity, promotes stewardship of the earth, calls attention to the plight of the world’s poor in the face of environmental degradation, and invites all humanity to come together to solve a problem global in scope. Read the full encyclical at vatican.va.