LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sustainability is a lesson that even the leader of a green-minded school admits she is still learning.
Students at St. Agnes School in Louisville, Kentucky, took energy surveys of their elementary campus and caught the principal red-, or rather, hot-handed.
“Unfortunately, my office was found to have the highest temperature,” laughed Julianna Daly, who was caught by the students during a winter efficiency survey.
“They helped me to realize that when I wasn’t in my office, it would stay nice and warm, and I might not need my heater on,” she said on Aug. 21, reflecting with both appreciation and good humor.
Sept. 1 will mark the fifth time the Catholic Church will celebrate World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Pope Francis established the day in 2015 when he declared Catholics would join their Orthodox brothers and sisters and other Christians in observing the day.
The elementary school has learned to involve its young people in its continual efforts to better care of the earth. One small act at a time, the students are living the lesson that sustainability, like faith, requires creativity and sacrifice to bear fruit.
“We as Catholics believe that sacrifice is creative,” environmental theologian Erin Lothes Biviano said.
“Sacrifice brings forth new life. All of us are limited, we all have 24 hours in the day. So to take on this critical non-optional work, we have to sacrifice something,” said Lothes, associate professor of theology at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J.
In his environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis 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.”
For the elementary school, that meant converting to reusable dishes in the cafeteria and raising money for a compost bin. Parents are asked to turn off car engines while waiting to pick up their children. The students also sacrifice time to care for a garden that attracts bees and butterflies.
“God spent a whole week making this for us. If we just treated it like trash, that would be so unfair to God,” said sixth-grader Elizabeth Browning.
“Just even planting a few plants would go so far and make the Earth a lot better. Just so we can pay God back,” she said.
In his encyclical, Pope Francis called for “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.”
In announcing the first World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, the pope said it would be a day for people of faith to reaffirm themselves as stewards, to thank God for the beauty of earth and to “implore his help for the protection of creation as well as His pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live.”
“We’re all part of the system, we all have an obligation to work so that all of us and especially the vulnerable and the poor can live healthy lives with dignity,” Lothes said.
As the students learned, their small efforts toward sustainability paid off. While energy efficiency brought financial benefits, their efforts had the more important result of instilling the students with an awareness of the earth.
“In some cases, there’s not an immediate financial benefit. You have to understand the other nonfinancial benefits that you’re getting from that,” explained Tamra Koshewa, a parent and former school board chair.
“If we do nothing else, we want to have kids leave our school with thoughtful minds and compassionate hearts,” Daly said.
A group of students meet weekly to research and plan ways that the school can be more energy efficient. The young people regularly visit the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center next door for lessons on the environment and to simply enjoy a nature preserve.
“It’s beautiful. You get to see all the colorful leaves on the trees, especially at this time because it’s fall. You can see the insects, and butterflies all flying around.” described Sadie Zoeller, a fifth-grader.
St. Agnes was recognized as a 2019 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School for its environmental efforts.
The school intends to continue collaborating with the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center to continue inspiring young people with a love of God’s creation.
“What’s unfortunate is that environmental issues have become politicized,” explained Kyle Kramer, the center’s executive director.
“This is something we can and must all do together, regardless of our various views politically or theologically,” he said.
“We all have a common ground and it is the common ground.”