St. Michael’s Elementary School in Burnaby looks like any other school in the city. Taking a closer look, however, one notices a vegetable garden on the property. The garden is one way the school responded to Pope Francis’ call for Catholics to care for our common home.

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home was released in June 2015. The following year the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese (CISVA) adopted “Caring for our Common Home” as the theme for the school year. As school communities and other local Catholics began to reflect on Pope Francis’ call, initiatives like St. Michael’s vegetable garden began to appear.

Caterina Kennedy, principal of St. Michael’s, said when CISVA adopted the encyclical as the theme for the academic year, her school already had recycling bins in classrooms and needed to find a way to do more.

So organic recycling bins were introduced into classrooms for food and biodegradable waste, the weekly hot lunch program switched to compostable containers, and Waste-Free Wednesdays were launched.

St. Michael’s students baking kale chips from their outdoor garden.   

On Wednesdays, “the garbage cans are blocked and signs go on reminding students it’s Waste- Free Wednesday,” Kennedy said. After encountering a blocked garbage can a couple of times, students begin to think twice about how much waste is in their lunch boxes.

But to get students really thinking about how their actions affect the natural world, “we wanted to have students be part of nature,” Kennedy said. Parents worked together to create an Outdoor Learning Centre and start a vegetable garden.

She said the garden teaches kids where their food comes from.  “We have harvest days. The parents come to help out and they make things, like kale chips, with the kids,” Kennedy said. Any extra vegetables harvested are donated to a local food bank.

St. Michael’s students working in the school garden.

A garden also appeared at Holy Cross Regional Secondary in Surrey.

Chris Blesch, the principal at Holy Cross, said when Laudato Si came out, “we were already building our Environmental Club and Social Justice Club. These two have morphed into the Eco-Justice Club. They are responsible for our Fair Trade Market, student gardens, [they] coordinate the biology sale, [and] coordinate to raise funds through the recycle program for the Syrian Refugee Project,” Blesch said.

The student gardens, made up of  three, six-foot planters in front of the school, serve as education tools, but when the new addition to the school is completed, the gardens will be expanded, Blesch said. “At that point they would be able to produce enough to impact food kitchens at the parishes,” he said.

Holy Cross Secondary’s Social Justice Club and Environmental Club have merged into an Eco-Justice Club. (Holy Cross photo)

Each grade also responded to the call to “care for our common home” with a different project: Grade 8 religion classes adopted a street to clean, Grade 9 classes focused on community building and buddied up with students at St. Matthew’s Elementary as part of a youth mentorship program, the Grades 10 and 11 classes helped implement a new recycling program, and Grade 12 students volunteered at The Door is Open, the drop-in centre run by the Carmelite Sisters of Our Lady in downtown Vancouver.

Blesch said, “we were the first high school in Surrey to implement a full recycle program on all waste. This was done in conjunction with the City of Surrey and we became the pilot project for all their schools.” 

At Immaculate Conception Elementary in Vancouver, the Grade 4 class is in its fourth successful year of Garden Buddies, a co-curricular effort shared by students, staff, parents, parish volunteers, and community master gardeners.

Garden Buddies teaches the students not only how to plant but to work as a team and care for their common home.

Students from Immaculate Conception Elementary in Vancouver work on their garden. (Kristina Manfron / Special to The B.C. Catholic)

Other organizations in the archdiocese also applied to principles of Laudato Si to their activities.

Local members of the Fraternity of St. Francis, an order of secular Franciscans, took time to study the encyclical in depth and find their own way to respond to the Pope’s call.

For Margaret Ross it meant teaming up with other parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima in Coquitlam to launch the Eco-Fatima group. The group’s goal is to educate parishioners about how to care for the planet and make the parish as “green” as possible. 

Ross admitted, “it’s been a bit of a tough sell.”  She said she had been told by some people that as a Catholic there were other “more important issues” she should worry about.

Still, the group was able turn the parish into a no-bottled-water zone and put organics recycling bins in the spaces commonly used for parish gatherings. “We’re encouraging as little waste as possible,” she said.

Eco-Fatima members also introduced parishioners to the Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program run by A Rocha Canada, a Christian environmental stewardship organization. Every two weeks during the growing season Ross drives out to A Rocha’s environmental centre in Surrey and picks up boxes of produce that she drops off at the parish. Community members who signed up for the program drop by the parish and pick up their vegetables.

According to Ross taking part in a CSA program is about more than just supporting local farmers. “It’s an exercise in reconnecting to the earth, realizing what grows this time of year ... it slows you down. You can’t be go, go, go and eat fresh vegetables,” she said. 

Although Laudato Si was released in 2015 and there are challenges, neither Kennedy, Blesch or Ross have any intention of giving up on the initiatives their schools and parishes have introduced. “I won’t let these initiatives go,” Kennedy said.

Has your parish, school or organization launched a Laudato Si initiative? Email us the details at [email protected].

Holy Cross students visit the Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel. (Holy Cross photo)