Abigail Velasquez and Aleysha Mendoza, eighth-grade students in Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, collect trash on school grounds. The school uses a phone app with which students can geotag trash and verify it was properly discarded. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

Abigail Velasquez and Aleysha Mendoza, eighth-grade students in Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, collect trash on school grounds. The school uses a phone app with which students can geotag trash and verify it was properly discarded. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

By Mary Morrell | Contributing Editor

“I fell in love with a crab,” declared a parent chaperone, following a Young Scientist Club marine biology cruise in Cape May.

She attributed her newfound appreciation for one of God’s uniquely lovely creatures to an experience that demonstrated reverence and respect for creation, said Joanne Arnold, science teacher in St. Dominic School, Brick, who has been arranging the club cruise for 36 years.

This type of initiative, taking place in Catholic schools and parishes across the Diocese, embraces the teachings of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of creation and what it means to be fully human. The Holy Father underscores the delicate balance between the health of the Earth and the health of human beings, warning that environmental misuse and degradation compromises human health, life and dignity.  He stresses an “ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith” as a path to wellness, for the Earth and all of God’s people.

Pope Francis recounts the daily risks that humans face, writing, “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. … There is … pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general.”

A current reminder and extreme example of the extent to which humans are exposed to toxic materials in their surroundings was recently emphasized with the anniversary of 9-11 and recognition of the serious health problems and deaths that have occurred among first responders, following their heroic work at Ground Zero. 

Pope Francis stresses that education and training are the real keys to transformation and action to renew the Earth. “Ecological education can take place in a variety of settings: at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis, and elsewhere. Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life.”

God’s Good Earth

The Young Scientist Club is one element of a broader curriculum flowing from the Catholic teaching that “we are called to be stewards of God’s Earth,” said Arnold, who also serves as chair of the diocesan science curriculum committee for Catholic schools.

Arnold noted the value of experiential lessons on hydroponics – growing plants without soil in a nutrient rich solvent. It is a form of water saving agriculture, Arnold pointed out, and a boon to people and the environment, using less land, less water, causing less erosion, and using fewer, if any, pesticides.

In the courtyard of Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, sits a greenhouse that will be fully constructed by the end of September. Built by volunteers in the school community, the greenhouse will be used by the Upper School’s Growing Earth Club, honors and advanced biology classes, and the Lower School Garden Club.

 “We will start from seed and then use the produce for salads.  The students can take some home and some will be donated to the local food banks. We want to be good stewards of these resources,” said Rebecca Reed, Upper School biology teacher.

“There is so much more the children can do and learn about gardening, about the environmental effects on a plant and the lifecycle of a plant,” said Anne Reap, Lower School director. “They will be exposed to healthy foods and learn more about caring about themselves and the environment.”

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, “we teach our students that the Earth is our modern-day Eden and to keep it we must take care of it every day.  As such, we have formed a carbon footprint awareness movement that has stretched beyond the walls of the classroom,” explained Kaitlyn O’Meara, fourth-grade teacher and vice principal.

The movement started with an assignment by language arts teacher David Reiff to watch a Ted Talk video by Jeff Kirshner entitled “This App Makes It Fun To Pick Up Trash.”  After his four-year old daughter saw a plastic tub of cat litter in the woods, Kirschner, an entrepreneur,  created Litterati – a global movement that’s “crowdsource-cleaning” the planet one piece of litter at a time.

The app captures garbage that is found by the individual, geotags it and inventories it as collected and disposed of properly. explained O’Meara. Mount Carmel’s Middle School, spearheaded by the eighth grade, encouraged everyone with a phone to download the app and begin making a difference. Since first assigned, more than 500 pieces of garbage have been removed by students throughout Monmouth County.

Gardens of Giving

The growing parish trend toward facilitating healthy eating and nurturing the environment is clearly visible in St. Denis, Manasquan, where a fenced garden, measuring 28 by 47 feet has produced some 700 pounds of vegetables, fruits and herbs in this, its second season. Also planted were “beneficials,” companion plants which attract helpful insects and repel pests.

Called “Oma’s Garden” in honor of the grandmother of the Eagle Scout who designed the tract, the fertile plot is maintained by volunteers from 13 houses of worship in the Manasquan Ministerium, said Father William Lago, pastor of St. Denis and healthy garden enthusiast.

Father Lago explained that all the produce is made available by the Ministerium which “offers it out like a small scale farmers market” on a weekly basis during the season. “The wares are put out on a table and people are able to help themselves,” he said.

He noted that in its efforts to benefit humanity through the environment, the parish has also developed a “pollinator garden” nearby to attract the honey bees so vital to keeping all gardens growing.

St. Denis is joined by St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, and St. Luke Parish, Toms River, both of which sponsor community gardens and share the bounty with the local community, nurturing its health, as well.

In Laudato Si’, which has been added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, Pope Francis focuses on relationships – with God, with others, and with the Earth. His teaching builds on the long-standing tradition of the Catholic Church for communion, social justice, care of creation and stewardship of the Earth. He writes, “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us …”

Lois Rogers, Rose O’Connor and Kaitlyn O’Meara contributed to this story.