“It’s just inherent in us as Franciscans,” Downey said. “Saint Francis is the patron saint of the environment. I think if we’re preaching protecting God’s creation and being good stewards, well then, we need to walk the talk and lead by example.”
St. Francis Church recently was named an official wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It means that the church grounds provide food, shelter, water and a place to raise young for native wildlife, including birds, frogs and butterflies.
The church is nearing the end of a two-year program to receive certification from Greenfaith, an interfaith environmental coalition. Becoming a wildlife habitat is part of the certification process. St. Francis was the first house of worship in Virginia to join Greenfaith’s program, which requires that the church complete more than 24 environmental tasks to be recognized as a leader in environmentalism.
The requirements are divided into environmental justice, stewardship, communications and spirit. In addition to having services focused on environmentalism, the church has held educational programs on environmental justice, examined how it uses energy, and provided tips and information to parishioners on making their homes more environmentally friendly.
The parish members seem to be embracing the idea, said Rob Goraieb, the coordinator for Franciscan action and advocacy at St. Francis of Assisi.
“The differentiating element that we wanted to bring was to not come at this from a political lens, but to come from a spiritual place, from a care for creation, from being stewards of God’s creation,” Goraieb said. “That really helps, I think, for the embrace.”
Efforts have included using money from a bequest to replace old, drafty windows in the parish’s school to make the building more energy efficient. The school has gone paperless in its communication with parents and put recycling bins in each classroom, said Principal Tricia Barber. Some teachers have banned disposable water bottles from their classrooms.
The recycling receptacle behind the school used to be smaller than the trash bin; they have replaced it with a larger container. Students in first grade planted a garden behind the school, and some of the vegetables are donated to local families.
When it was time to replace hymnals, Downey said, they went with longer-lasting hardbacks instead of paperbacks. The church has held workshops on composting and canning. A new parking lot includes raised islands between the rows to help with water runoff. And in April, it hosted a St. Francis Earth Day, with demonstrations and information on environmentally friendly living.
St. Francis expects to receive its certification from Greenfaith in the summer. The hope is that the parish’s 2,500 families will apply what they are learning at the church to their everyday lives, Downey said.
“Sometimes in our role as leadership, we have to connect those dots for people,” Downey said. “It’s in some ways what Pope Francis was talking about recently. We live in a world where it’s, ‘What’s in it for me?’ and he’s trying to challenge us to say, ‘How can I help my brother and my sister who are struggling?’ It may not do us any good financially, but it will help the environment.”