At Toronto’s St. Gabriel’s Parish, one of the early parishes to join the Green Churches Network, the entire south facade of the worship space is glazed with clear glass. Architect Robert Chiotti designed it to harness the winter’s energy while extending the sacred space of worship “into the sacred space of the world beyond.” Register file photo by Michael Swan

Halfway through three-year plan, Green Churches Network aims to expand its national footprint

  • January 28, 2019

It surprises Gregory Lynch when he fields calls at the Green Churches Network from churches looking for ways to lessen their carbon footprint.

For the most part, they are already on the path to making their parishes more environmentally friendly, but are shy one thing.

“Joining the (Green Churches) Network is the step we’re missing,” said Lynch, director of the Montreal-based network that supports Christian communities in improving environmental practices.

The network has undertaken a three-year plan, begun in 2017, to expand its footprint outside of Quebec, where the majority of its members are located, with a goal of being truly national, with a presence in each province and territory, in 2020. It’s been a slow growth, but as the plan reaches its halfway point, Lynch sees promise. 

“As far as growth goes, I’m feeling pretty good about it,” said Lynch, the network’s director. “We’re pretty enthusiastic.”

The Green Churches Network is a community of churches committed to the care of creation. It hosts a number of events and forums annually to share its message through a spiritual lens. It was officially established in 2015 but has been built on extensive fieldwork ongoing since 2006. It offers practical tools to Christian communities geared to action, education and spirituality to integrate care for our planet into the regular activities of their church. Thirteen Christian denominations are associated with the network.

Green Churches offers green tips to parishes and helpful campaigns and activities to raise environmental awareness. It shows churches how they can improve energy efficiency and reduce water consumption, tips on grounds maintenance, suggests environmental action activities and how to access grants to achieve these goals.

One of its major projects is the annual Season of Creation, celebrated Sept. 1 — the day Patriarch Demetrios I, patriarch of Constantinople, dedicated to the protection of the environment in 1989 and in 2015 was established as the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation by Pope Francis — through Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Christian communities are invited to organize activities on the theme of creation care during those five weeks. It also hosts its annual Green Churches Forum to stimulate ecological initiatives, set for the fall in Trois-Rivieres, Que., in partnership with Our Lady of the Cape Shrine, a registered green sanctuary. 

Growth plans took a back seat last year as the network did some internal housecleaning. It found a new home, moving from Laval into the rectory of Montreal’s St. Claire Parish, while also revamping its website. With these projects complete, things are back to normal and getting the word out has taken on a new urgency.

“I’m hoping there will be a chance that we can invite some people from outside the province, from outside the Catholic faith, to come and join us and explore a little bit more,” said Lynch.

As it stands, the network has 75 churches in four provinces signed on, which is below the 2018 goal of 110 churches in five provinces. Lynch, however, is pleased where they are at and cautions that while it’s good to have ambitious goals, they’re not necessarily a measure of success.

“The network is going well and we’ve made a lot of progress and I think we’ll continue to,” he said.

Toronto’s St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church was among the early parishes involved in the network. When its new church was completed in 2006, it was the first church in Canada to receive gold certification in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System. In his design, architect Robert Chiotti was seeking to establish a link between the sacredness of those gathered in faith with the sacredness of the Earth. 

“The entire south facade of the worship space is glazed with clear glass,” Chiotti said. “This has been done in order to passively harness the winter sun’s energy and to extend the sacred space of the worship area into the sacred space of the world beyond, emphasizing that when we gather to worship, we do so within the greater context of creation.”

This fit nicely with the network’s aim of equipping faith communities to opt for better ecological practices, while educating members to live in a way that stewards creation. It made for a smooth transition for St. Gabriel’s into the network.

Ottawa’s St. Basil’s Parish is one of the more recent churches to join, coming on board late in 2017. Margaret Bott leads St. Basil’s “Green Team” of six helping to spread the green message. It’s mostly small steps to start. The parish has turned into a bottled-water free zone and has implemented new guidelines to groups that rent the kitchen that among other things ban the use of styrofoam plates and cups, said Bott.

The parish has also embraced the Season of Creation, said Bott, and did a clean-up of church grounds on Earth Day last year that brought about 30 people on board. 

“I think we’re getting a good response. It’s just a matter of coming up with some more ideas,” said Bott.

Mostly though, it’s about raising awareness among the people in the pews. 

“At one stage, it was sort of just the tree huggers,” Bott said with a chuckle. “But now everybody is interested in this.”

Green Churches caught the wave of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’and the network built momentum from the document that “has influenced people’s actions and priorities (and) remains central to a lot of the messages we do,” said Lynch. What he would like to see though is more of a local boost, not so much from the grassroots but from leaders in the Canadian churches. 

“We have an awesome foundation with Laudato Si’ and a papal motivation to move forward. But what we’re not seeing is a lot of movement in Canada.”

Lynch expects the next wave of growth to occur in Ontario. He’s putting his energy particularly on the United Church, with many of its churches expressing an interest in the network. 

“When we’re having new United churches coming in it’s often that they’ve already had activities going on and they’re happy now to have a body, a team, to be part of,” he said.

While much of its focus remains the “practical issues” for building management, the next few months will see Lynch and his five-member team getting facilitators to spread the word through workshops, particularly outside of Quebec. And while he understands finances for many churches are tight as the number of people in the pews has declined, Lynch said they are looking to various sources of funding to help churches get started on the long-term goal of having ecologically-sustainable churches.

“We’re hoping that with a little bit of shifting in our funding we’ll be able to offer that in a way that churches can afford it.” 

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