At St. Matthew Catholic Elementary School in Binbrook, near Hamilton, students plant trees as part of their ecological education. All schools In the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic board are EcoSchool certified. Photo courtesy of Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board

Schools take Pope's lessons on environment to heart

  • April 19, 2018

Even if spring refuses to get sprung this year after a stubbornly long winter, Earth Day will still be an intensely educational and intensely religious occasion in Catholic schools across Ontario.

At St. Agatha’s Catholic School in Scarborough the annual April 22 celebration of care for the Earth fits right into everything they learn from Kindergarten through Grade 8, from science to art to religion classes.

“That’s how we’re different. We connect the environment to what Pope Francis says, and our Catholicism, and the creation stories. The public system can’t do that,” said St. Agatha teacher Liza Tilander. “That’s where we have our distinct connection to God. We connect. We tell them that in Genesis God created and this is what we have to take care of.”

St. Agatha’s is one of 54 certified EcoSchools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board. In Hamilton all 57 Catholic Schools hold the prestigious EcoSchool designation handed out by York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. In a handful of Catholic boards 100 per cent of the schools are EcoSchool certified.

The program now reaches more than 900,000 Kindergarten to Grade 12 students every year, and Catholic schools are among the most enthusiastic supporters.

“It’s part of the culture of the school, part of the air that they breathe,” said Hamilton-Wentworth religion and family life program leader Paul Beaudette.

walking school bus earth dayStudents at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary School in Hamilton put together a “Walking School Bus” program which encourages kids to walk together to school along approved, safe routes. Active living and a lower carbon footprint are their goals. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board) 

It’s no accident that it’s the religion guy who co-ordinates the EcoSchool program for the Steeltown Catholic board.

“Look, here’s a letter from Pope Francis written not only to the Church but to the world and it’s as much about caring for the poor as it is about caring for the Earth,” Beaudette said. “You can’t do one without the other. Caring for the poor is a principle not only of our Catholic religion but of the teaching of Jesus. That’s where I would start. Laudato Si’ is a clarion call to work on this, to get on board.”

Care for the environment isn’t just a 12th century quirk of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s everywhere you look in the history and literature of the Church, Beaudette said. 

“You can look at some of the Mediaeval mystics and see this. It’s a deep part of our tradition. It’s just become much more front and centre. Part of that is because of the crisis in climate change,” he said.

If Catholic schools exist to connect kids to their tradition and to the world around them, then they have to teach stewardship, ecology and the environment, Beaudette said. 

“Earth Day is a focus,” he said.

At St. Agatha’s they teach by doing. The kids work in the school’s Three Sisters Garden, where they learn about the kind of agriculture practiced by Indigenous people in Toronto before the French and British arrived. But it also teaches them where food comes from.

“The kids don’t know,” said Tilander. “A lot of people, sometimes adults, don’t know where food comes from. They don’t know what part of the world it comes from. Is it local? Mexico? South Africa?”

Once the carrots, peas, beans, etc. come out of the ground in their schoolyard, St. Agatha students also play a role in determining where the food goes. They make soups for a local women’s shelter and help distribute their produce during Scarborough Seedy Saturdays and Green Fair. With help from staff and students at Blessed Cardinal Newman High School and Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate, the Saturday fairs at the school bring in over 700 visitors.

“This is our harvest. This is what we have to do with it, and then we’re going to share it,” is how veteran teacher Anne-Marie McCowan describes the learning process for St. Agatha students. 

The next generation of Catholic school graduates will almost universally grow up with a deeply ingrained sense of service and responsibility for the environment, said Canadian Catholic School Trustees Association president Marino Gazzola, who also chairs the Wellington Catholic school board in Guelph.

“It’s part of the overall philosophy Catholic schools have always had, and that’s educating the whole person — the mind, the body, the soul,” Gazzola told The Catholic Register. “The environment certainly becomes a part of it — the world we live in.”

If the next generation discovers their Catholic identity through an ecological ethic, they will be no less Catholic for it, he said.

“It’s also part of the evolving generation. They have different ideas,” he said. “They will be living in a different world than we lived in. You can’t live on the idea that this is the way we’ve always done it.”

Gazzola is inspired by a generation of young Catholic teachers who have found their vocation in the spirit of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ and introducing their students to the natural world.

“They’re teaching more of a hands-on philosophy, which the students can really relate to,” he said. “If they can actually touch something, have it in front of them rather than just reading about it in a book, they learn more and they learn in different ways.”

“We’re always making sure that what we do, we connect it with our Catholicism,” said St. Agatha art teacher Maria Modica.

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