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Pope Francis’ ‘Laudato Si’ encyclical kindles Earth-friendly spark in Catholic schools, parishes

By Suzanne Koziatek

Three years after Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” challenged all of us to “protect our common home,” schools and parishes in the Belleville diocese have taken that message to heart.

They’ve made changes to their daily operations that tread more lightly on the earth, and have incorporated environmental education into their curriculum with Biblical instructions to be good stewards of God’s creation.

Many of those involved in these initiatives say that they were interested in the environment prior to the pope’s teaching, but appreciated the opportunity it gave to tie their concerns to a greater spiritual message.

“We got more involved after that encyclical,” says Claire Hatch, principal at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Belleville. “It gave us the impetus to take it even further.”

The most visible sign of Blessed Sacrament’s commitment to living out “Laudato Si” lies a few blocks away from the school’s campus. The small piece of property once held a retention area called Peterson’s Pond, which was drained when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources determined that the dam that held it back was failing.

Now, it’s home to a small wetlands area that is undergoing a transformation into a pollinator garden and outdoor classroom. Blessed Sacrament is partnering with local community organizations and with an environmental group, the Heartlands Conservancy, to clear away invasive species, install native plants, and do tests to determine the health of the water.

Eighth-graders at the school make frequent trips to the pond in their science class, Hatch says. “They do a lot over there.” Younger students have built “bee boxes” to attract native bee species.

Teachers have directly tied these efforts to the pope’s appeal, which invites us to “instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land.”

“Some of the teachers have taken a catechist’s class that talks about it, so they’ve been bringing that into class as well,” Hatch says.

Kids often take the lead in school recycling and in encouraging use of reusable containers.

“They make you feel really guilty if you throw out a plastic water bottle,” their principal says. She notes that when the school couldn’t find a recycler who would collect plastic, kids started taking the recycling home to put in their home recycling bins.

Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo has a special tie to the environment: Located in a strongly rural area, it’s one of the rare Catholic high schools with its own agricultural education program.

“We teach that balance between the call to feed the world while being good stewards of the earth,” says Principal Russell Hart.

He says the school has begun growing alfalfa on the five acres of the campus, and teaches ag students about environmentally friendly farm practices such as crop rotation.

The school also has an environmental club, which collects recycling to fund projects at the school. A few years ago, the school installed solar panels to power its greenhouse.

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and its school in Columbia both have taken steps in recent years to shrink their environmental footprint.

Karen Lundy, a school counselor at the school and the church’s music director, says her parish is “living the encyclical.”

“What we’re trying to do with our congregation and with our students is to discuss how we’re shaping the future of the planet with our actions,” Lundy says. “It’s about protecting part of God’s creation.”

Both the church and the school have multiple recycling bins. The church has eliminated plastic foam trays and disposable utensils.

“For church picnics, we use paper plates, which are a step in the right direction,” Lundy says. “We use washable utensils for church events.”

The school cafeteria has eliminated straws and recycles milk containers. Throughout the buildings, people are encouraged to use both sides of paper and to turn off and unplug power cords to cut down on electricity use.
Students are taught the importance of environmental stewardship in class and through field trips, Lundy says.

“Classes went to the city lagoon to learn respect for water resources,” she says. “They did a butterfly release at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis.”

Lundy says the church’s pastor, Msgr. Carl Scherrer, has been supportive of these efforts.

“Father Carl has been saying, ‘This is what the pope has been telling us to pay attention to, the care of our common home.’”

Funding for this story was provided by The Wilke Family Fund.