Last spring Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, titled Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home. Through this document, Pope Francis implored all people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — to enter into a new conversation about the environmental challenges the world is facing and the ways people can shape the future of the planet.
This encyclical garnered much attention worldwide, and it also motivated a number of local Catholics to take action to help the environment. Several members of St. Peter Parish in Shortsville, Phelps and Clifton Springs have banded together to form a climate change group at their parish, and in Seneca County, Father Jim Fennessy has taken several steps to make his parish more environmentally friendly.
Father Fennessy, pastor of St. Francis and St. Clare Parish in Waterloo and Seneca Falls, said he actually began raising his parish’s environmental awareness several months before the pope’s encyclical was released. In November 2014 he learned Pope Francis was preparing a document that would focus on the environment, so he started including relevant quotes from past popes in St. Francis and St. Clare’s weekly bulletin. In doing so, Father Fennessy realized that although Pope Francis may be the first pope to pen an entire encyclical about the environment, he certainly is not the first pontiff to comment on the topic.
In January 2015, Father Fennessy stopped putting papal quotes in the bulletin and instead began including recycling tips. In the spring, he decided it was time to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk as well. With help from members of the St. Francis and St. Clare parish council, he set up compost bins at both of the parish’s worship sites and began composting waste from his own kitchen.
"I think we have to be the leaders of (change), to show them that we’re doing it before they start to do it," Father Fennessy explained. "It’s a slow process, but I think we’re getting there."
Parishioners are welcome to bring their own compost to the bins, which are located in the back of the parking lot behind St. Mary Church in Waterloo and next to the rectory at St. Patrick Church in Seneca Falls. Father Fennessy situated that bin right outside the rectory’s kitchen window.
"I put it close because people think it stinks, but it doesn’t," he remarked.
Once a week the pastor gets out his pitchfork, turns the compost over and adds a little water to keep it moist. He’s hoping to use the compost next spring in Father Roy Kiggins’ vegetable garden at the rectory. Next year he also hopes to install a rain barrel on the parish grounds.
"You kind of hook it up to your downspout … and instead of the water going into the sewer or wherever, it goes into the barrel. Then you hook it up to a hose and then Father Roy can water his garden or I can add a little water to the compost," he said.
Although it took a little bit of effort to learn how to compost, the process wasn’t difficult or even expensive, said Father Fennessy, who also has set up racks of information about recycling in the back of each of the parish’s churches. He encourages parishioners to take their own steps to help the environment because the pope has called people to be stewards of the environment, he said.
"Being stewards doesn’t mean we’re the masters of it, so do whatever we want," he clarified. "It means take care of it."
Composting kitchen waste is one of many simple and easy ways to take better care of the earth, agreed Liz Hezel, one of the founders of St. Peter’s climate change group.
"Some things are just so easy it makes no sense not to do it," she added. "There are many ways that people can get behind it and actually do something about climate change."
People don’t have to take drastic steps, such as installing solar panels on their homes, in order to help the environment. Simply opting for reusable bags at the grocery store instead of plastic bags is a good way to start making a difference, Hezel said.
Hezel and the other members of the climate change group put up model trees at the back of each of the parish’s three worship sites and stacked paper leaves next to each tree. Parishioners have written their names and the "green" steps they’re taking on the leaves and hung them on the trees. Hezel also has created miniature libraries of information about climate change and recycling at the back of each church.
"We’re not doing enough, and we’re not vocal enough. We’re trying to push it and make more people aware of global warming," Hezel said. "The pope has just jumped in with both hands and feet, saying we have got to start being stewards of the earth. I know there are things we can do differently."