For some Catholics, care for the earth is an organic thing, growing and thriving and spreading just like the cycle of a seed growing into a plant and bearing fruit.
It’s in the Saturday morning hours that volunteers spend at St. Francis de Sales Parish’s jubilee farm, growing organic vegetables to be distributed through the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food pantry and the parish’s Sunday evening fellowship dinner. The farm — a bit more than an acre of agricultural ground whose use is donated by an elderly parishioner — generates between 2,000 and 6,000 pounds of potatoes, onions, carrots, beets and other produce each year.
It’s in the way St. Monica Academy teachers weave lessons about care of the earth throughout their curriculum, with worm bins to help with composting at the early grades and field trips to test water quality of the North Branch of the Chicago River in middle school. Each class has its own garden plot, with children and teachers deciding together what to plant. Those lessons have gone home and inspired family gardens, and children have become educators to the parents on matters such as which materials can be recycled.
It’s even in the way St. Dismas Parish in Waukegan has used the cooperation of parishioners and parish organizations to make its 4-acre campus into a quiet, beautiful spot where people in the community can come and enjoy God’s creation, praying or finding a peaceful place to rest.
The planted areas include a Mary garden, a new plot planned by a local Eagle Scout, and sections of garden maintained by various parish groups, said the pastor, Father Patrick Rugen. The outdoor garden areas are used by the youth group and by the men’s club and by people just looking for peace and quiet, he said.
“People do use it to come and pray and walk around,” he said. “It’s God’s gift to us.”
Ray Coleman, principal of St. Monica Academy, said that the school’s Student Environmental Education and Development Studies curriculum takes in all areas of studies, including the church’s teaching on stewardship of the earth.
It starts in preschool, with children spending time in the school’s sensory garden — filled with plants that have interesting smells, textures and even sounds — and figuring out what to plant in their garden plot. This year, the kids chose a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme, selecting flowers that are the colors that are identified with the characters and vegetables that can be used on pizza, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ favorite food, said teacher Callie Salerno.
Kindergarten teacher Debbie Price said her class cut to the chase and planted a “pizza garden,” featuring vegetables to goon pizza.
Given the disconnect between the school year and the growing season, students learn about plants and the plant life cycle all year, and then do the actual planting near the end of the school year in May.
Families sign up to come during the summer to water and weed and to harvest any produce that would otherwise be wasted. “We want people to take it,” Coleman said.
“We don’t want it to sit and rot.” More things are ready to harvest when the students return in the fall, and there is a harvest day in October, he said.
Price and Salerno said that even though their students are young, they understand the connections between the fun of the garden and the care of the earth.
“You’d be surprised at how much they understand,” Price said. “And they really like it. They always want to water when they come out for recess.”
Jenny Bronski, who has three children at the school, said they always talk about what is going on in the garden. The family, which includes Grace, going into third grade; Hannah, going into first grade; and Cole, going into 4-year-old preschool, will take a week this summer to care for the garden.
Grace Bronski, who said her favorite vegetable is cucumbers, said she likes working in the garden because “it’s helping the world.” She likes the flowers, she said, but likes growing vegetables a little bit better because “you can eat them when you’re done.”
Joe Lee and his family, including daughters Giuliana, going into first grade; and Giovanna, going into kindergarten also will take a week of caring for the gardens.
So far, his children enjoy the gardening. As they get older, they will learn more about the environmental impact of what they are doing.
Janet Gozzola has been coordinating the St. Francis de Sales garden for more than 15 years with her husband, Al. The couple organize volunteers to plan, plant, care for and harvest from a plot belonging to Bill and Jeanne Haberstroh, who are in their 90s.
Seeds to be planted in the garden are blessed at Sunday Masses, said the pastor, Father David Ryan.
“We needed to get food to people that wasn’t out of a box or a can,” Gozzola said. “We just grow everything I can think of, with an emphasis on vegetables that will keep, like potatoes and beets.”
They also try to grow vegetables that are familiar to ethnic groups they serve, adding some kinds of peppers, for example, for the large Latino population in Lake County.
The group of volunteers has occasional additions, including young people. Some of the kids keep coming back.
Another group that keeps coming back are the local firefighters, who come and dump their water tanks into the two 500-gallon tanks at the garden plot each week. The firefighters sometimes come and hose down the plants during heat waves as well, she said.
“We could not do this at all without them,” Gozzola said.
Everyone who takes part benefits from the garden, she said, internalizing the lessons that Pope Francis emphasized about the need to care for the earth.
“I think the connection is that it goes back to basics and we are helping teach people how everything is created from the soil,” she said. “And we are growing food and giving it to the people who need it the most. When I’m out there, I feel so close to God.”
Care of the environment is an important topic for many of today’s young people, and thanks to an effort by the Office of Lifelong Formation, local youth had an opportunity Feb. 24 to share their concerns with Auxiliary Bishop Ronald Hicks, archdiocesan vicar general.
Describing the Amazon rainforest as "vital for our planet," Pope Francis joined the regions bishops in praying for action to extinguish the massive fires burning there.
Young people attending World Youth Day called attention to the world's environmental problems, issuing what they called a "manifesto" for the "care of the common home."