Two years ago Pope Francis delivered the world’s first Catholic encyclical about care for creation and care for the poor, Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home. It supported what millions of Catholics and other people of faith around the world already knew, and helped millions more learn: “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49). He said, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (217). Catholics across Indiana are responding to that call to action.
Here is what eight Indiana Catholic communities are doing to follow this teaching:
Father Alex Zenthoefer, pastor of Annunciation Parish in Evansville (Christ the King and Holy Spirit) reports that they have established a Monarch Habitat in their community garden, which is a wonderful gift to the butterflies as well as to school children, who now seem to be experts on the subject! In the picture, students from the Holy Spirit campus examine one of the caterpillars in the garden. Also in that garden, the children are helping to grow food that is sold to the congregation to raise money to assist those in need. The parish is hoping to install solar panels and is seeking the means to do so.
According to Sister Briana Craddock of The Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana, their community has been working in various ways to steward their resources and enjoy the gift of the natural world that God created. They reduce emissions by carpooling. They reduce food miles by growing their own vegetables and composting food scraps to enrich the soil. They use rain barrels, cisterns, and water from dehumidifiers to irrigate their plants and trees. They have planted trees and reduced mowing (with its emissions), creating a more attractive environment for birds, bees, butterflies, and other creatures—like the fox in this photo. They also mow their remaining fields selectively. One field was mowed until late in the year so the Monarch butterflies could have access to its milkweed.
The sisters have installed occupancy sensors and practice turning off lights. In the midst of a major renovation, they seek better ways to conserve energy. Most recently, they installed a VRV heating and cooling system in their hospitality center. They also recycle carefully, not only through the region’s recycling program but also by other means: with a "swap shop" for exchanging clothes and shoes, sending some of the clothing to St. Vincent de Paul or another charity. They also practice electronic recycling and gather eyeglasses and medicine bottles for people in other parts of the world.
Pete Lenzen at St. Paul's Catholic Center in Bloomington says they have reduced consumption of non-renewable electricity by 30% by converting all outside spotlights, inside sanctuary high bay and office lights to LED. They have replaced two of three air conditioning units with more efficient, energy-star rated, dual stage compressors. They are working to eliminate use of disposable plates and cups from after service fellowship coffee and juice and Sunday suppers for 250 college students. They have obtained quotes for solar panel installations and are reviewing funding options and timing. He also mentioned that St. John the Apostle in Bloomington is preparing for solar.
Sister Sheila Marie Fitzpatrick sent these notes about creation care work done by the Sisters of St. Benedict and the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove, Indiana, over the past six years:
2012: Planted four rain garden basins in new parking lot to manage storm water. All rainwater and snow melt from the parking lot drains toward the four basins, which allows the water to remain in the water table rather than sent to the sewer.
2014: Created the Peace & Nature Garden, a collaboration with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful. A three-acre prairie and over 140 trees and shrubs were planted.
2016: Replaced all 1300 fluorescent tubes and all 800 CFL light bulbs with LED bulbs.
2017: Entered into a 30-year agreement with The Nature Conservancy to manage their forested property bordering Yellowood State Forest in Brown County, and offered a Taize prayer service in honor of the Season of Creation (Sep 1 -Oct 4).
Sharon Horvath and Andy Pike of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and School in Indianapolis report that since Pope Francis released his 2015 encyclical, parishioners have been learning more through several Laudato Si’ study groups. Students in the school created a Laudato Si’ wall hanging representing its core messages concerning living in Christian simplicity. The Lent 4.2 program in the spring of 2017 gave suggestions for reducing environmental impact through examining everyday choices. Speakers from Bread for the World, Sierra Club, and Hoosier Environmental Council have helped the congregation see how these issues affect communities and called them to take action to support neighbors.
In 2015, Pope Francis also asked Catholics to join with other Christians annually on September 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Season of Creation itself has been celebrated at STA with prayer services in both the parish and the school. This year they held an ecumenical service with Fairview Presbyterian and Common Ground Christian Churches. People were asked to #LiveLaudatoSi by committing to take concrete actions in their lives. They wrote their pledges on leaves that were added to the tree display in the church narthex.
At the school last fall, almost 700 fluorescent tubes were replaced with LED bulbs. They plan to change all remaining lights to LEDs and install motion sensors. The parish has also started toward becoming an Energy Star Congregation through a capital campaign that will replace aging HVAC equipment with energy efficient models, repair the roof, and seal air leaks. Once more immediate needs have been met, they would like to install solar panels to further reduce their carbon footprint.
St. Thomas Aquinas is known for their annual parish festival, Sausagefest. This year’s food containers were switched to plant-based containers, and the recycling was increased by 50%: cardboard, aluminum, plastic bottles, cups, table coverings, and plastic bags and wraps, and glass bottles were recycled.
The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ’s Center at Donaldson were highlighted last month for their LED lighting retrofit. Adam Thada, Director of Ecological Relationships, reports that they will be installing car charging stations this fall, thanks to a grant from the Marshall County Community Foundation. Several Provincial Sisters attended the Drive Electric Week event in South Bend to look for electric options for their fleet. Read about it here. The community is also gathering each Friday for prayer during the Season of Creation.
This year the Poor Handmaids led their community in lobbying against SB 309, the net metering bill. They wrote a letter you can read here to their state senator Randy Hill, and traveled to Indianapolis to present it to him and to the state senate.
The community has recently ventured into prescribed burns on their land, to prevent the build-up of fuel for wildfires, to maintain wildlife habitat and ecological diversity, and to halt the march of woody species in ecological succession. Fire not only releases stored energy, but cycles nutrients, returning some back to the soil. The soil surface, darkened with black ash, absorbs more heat and accelerates spring growth. Fire also shifts the balance between competing species, helping maintain biological diversity.
The community plans to mobilize a burn crew each spring and fall as conditions and priorities permit. This past November, they conducted fires on 20 acres, starting small and easy to gain experience and test new equipment. They will continue to monitor fire’s effects on the land, interseeding new species to enhance the diversity and resiliency of each ecological community. In the picture, in-house ecologist Sr. Mary Baird, 80 years young, starts a burn.
Andrew Turba at St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church in South Bend, shared this TV clip featuring their solar project and that at First Unitarian Universalist Church. He reports that it has been one year since they installed solar on the school’s gym roof. Last year they also replaced 1100 T12 fluorescent bulbs in the school with LEDs, as well as 405 light bulbs in the church sanctuary. Between the panels and the lighting changes, they have achieved 100% carbon free lighting.
Last November they also replaced the church’s large 1950s boiler with an 85% efficient model, and look forward to seeing the results over time. They have two more boilers to replace in the near future, and plan to use the money saved from prior efficiencies to fund these projects.
This past month marked two more achievements: they hosted a H-IPL Climate Boot Camp on a Saturday in September, and became one of twelve Using Energy Prudently Acclaimed Congregations.
Since we are celebrating the feast day of St. Francis, and since the story of The Sisters of St. Francis at Oldenburg is so compelling, we saved it for last. In 2008, the community adopted this public statement:
"Following the example of Francis and Clare of Assisi, we, the Oldenburg Franciscan Sisters, humbly acknowledge that we are sisters of all creation. With awe and gratitude we celebrate the mystery of God's loving presence in the Universe. We acknowledge that we are of Earth, deeply connected to all life, ever nurtured and sustained by Earth’s abundant gifts. Faithful to our Franciscan heritage, we assume personal and communal responsibility for honoring and protecting the natural world in our care, choosing to value all as sacred. We commit to making Earth a priority in our decisions, to living lightly on Earth, to using resources responsibly, and to contributing to the sustainability of Earth for generations to come."
They have been promoting energy conservation and efficiency for many years, according to Sisters Claire Whalen and Marge Wissman, and the president of the Oldenburg Academy, Diane Laake. Since 2001 they have replaced more than 1,000 windows, and have only 26 more to replace this year. Last year they also replaced fluorescent lighting in hallways and larger institutional rooms, and they plan to replace all incandescent lamp bulbs with LEDs and begin phasing out the rest of their fluorescent lamps as soon as possible.
Since the 1980’s they have a used clothing swap program called “Encore,” sending non-chosen items to Goodwill, the Academy’s resale store, “Twice Blessed,” or to missions in Appalachia where other Sisters live and work. A Congregation-wide project in 2015 and 2016 focused on reducing “accumulated stuff,” including unneeded buildings and spaces.
The greatest commitment to Earth Care in terms of personnel and financial resources for this Franciscan Community has been its revitalization of the Congregation’s family farm, now called Michaela Farm. In 1992 the Sisters of St. Francis returned to managing the farm that fed both Sisters and Academy students for more than 130 years with fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat. Food production at Michaela Farm uses natural methods. Many acres of pastures of chemical-free grasses and wooded acres, along with their farming methods, add to the farm’s carbon sequestration. The Sisters have led in promoting local food, including the popular Saturday Farmers Market in Batesville, IN, contributing to health of both bodies and the local economy and significantly reducing the miles that food is transported. The sisters compost food, plant, and animal waste at Michaela Farm, and the convent, farm, retreat center and academy also recycle religiously. In 2012 they installed solar panels on one of their farm houses. Efforts are being made to replace convent vehicles with hybrid varieties.
The Sisters are also educating themselves and others regarding renewable energy and its role in addressing climate change, offering workshops in the retreat center. Other educational programs have been offered at the Convent, the Franciscan Spirituality Center, Batesville Public Library and for the Food and Growers Association’s Annual Conference. This summer one of the Sisters, Claire Whalen, organized a local team for the Hoosier Solarizing Initiative to facilitate installation of solar panels for 12 homeowners and businesses in Oldenburg and Batesville, Indiana. She recently made national news as the leader of one of 15 teams across Indiana that have quickly expanded residential solar in response to the recent passage of Indiana Senate Bill 309 restricting net metering. Check out this Facebook link to a compelling HBO VICE news segment on Sr. Claire and SB 309.
Oldenburg’s Office of Peace, Justice, and Integrity of Creation keeps sisters and associates informed about the many issues facing our country and world, and assists members in contacting senators and representatives and signing petitions. In response to Laudato Si’, they were instrumental in writing The Franciscan Federation Resolution for 2017 – 2018 entitled “A Pledge of Solidarity of Care of Creation with Indigenous People,” denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery which takes away land from native people, and stood in solidarity with Native American brothers and sisters during the stand-off at the Dakota Pipeline.
This year, Oldenburg Academy is focusing on “Care of Creation.” A committee is facilitating activities throughout the year, such as displaying posters in each classroom displaying the Sisters Corporate Stance on Care of Creation; replacing drinking fountains in the main academic building with ones that fill water bottles to discourage use of plastic bottles; expanding the student-led “Recyclones’” recyclable collection; hosting a Solarize Indiana town meeting; working to add local, organic foods to our cafeteria; and planning a series of guest speakers on topics such as climate change, earth literacy, and sustainable agriculture.
Finally, two sisters from the community live and minister in other states, promoting awareness for sustainable use of the Earth and action to reduce carbon pollution. As Executive Director of the New Opportunity School for Women, Sister Robbie Pentecost works with Appalachian women to facilitate their financial, educational and personal empowerment, awakening women, many who have been through significant trauma, to the beauty of the world around and within them helps them realize how they can participate in creating the environment they want to be part of. She recently received an invitation to speak at the COP23 conference in Germany this fall on her work on awakening women and others to the concept of Creation Care in a region so badly in need of “tending” skills.
Sister Marya Grathwohl, OSF, Director of Earth Hope in Montana, worked with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Board of Directors of Prayer Lodge from 1999-2004 to install wind and solar energy, ground-source heating and cooling, a passive solar greenhouse, and rooftop water catchment. They doubled the size of their women's center, Prayer Lodge, and cut the utility bill in half. Through Earth Hope, Sister Marya continues to offer programs and retreats in other cities in the US and abroad. She created an educational program for persons in US jails. As they learn about the Universe Story they begin to see their own importance and oneness with all creation. Wardens at such prisons attest to the lowering of recidivism among this population.
Recently Earth Hope has been collaborating with Citizens Climate Lobby to promote action on Carbon Fee and Dividend legislation on the state and national levels. S. Marya is a trained Climate Reality Leader (2017) and offers presentations that energize people to connect faith commitment with efforts to address climate change. Marya also works with Defenders of Wildlife Outreach. Just as St. Francis in his day brokered reconciliation between the villagers of Gubbio, Italy, and a hungry area wolf, so, too, this follower of Francis will be advocating legislation for programs that balance needs of farmers and ranchers with protection of our iconic predators like wolf, grizzly and cougar as well as the little known pallid sturgeon.