Published in 2015, Pope Francis’s second encyclical Laudato si’ challenged us to care for our common home, the earth. His message was bold and urgent, calling us to act swiftly, reject blind consumerism, abandon irresponsible development, and reconsider the many ways in which we can care for our planet.
Many projects at our Jesuit schools are in alignment with Laudato si’, and students are leading the way.
Gesu Catholic School in Detroit began to improve their “community green” in 2018, building a playground and a labyrinth, installing picnic tables, and creating a safe green space within their courtyard. Grants from United Auto Workers (UAW)—GM and Ford—bolstered the efforts.
Led by science teacher Kathleen Barrett and volunteer Anita Sevier, the students began to research clean energy, learning that asthma was prevalent in 8% of the population nationally, 21% of the population of Michigan, and 27% of the population of Detroit. They even realized that four students among the 10 in their project group suffered from serious asthma. This was the catalyst for their solar project, and they sprang into action.
This new Solar Club produced a video on the topic, which led to financial support from UAW allies, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, and others and eventually resulted in the installation of an array of 24-kilowatt panels on the roof. The sun shines, and clean energy flows, producing electricity for the school, all while reducing their carbon footprint, and best yet, creating a healthier environment for those with asthma. The Solar Club has morphed into the Science Club, which has embarked on a drainage project.
Graduates mentoring those who walk behind them is exactly the story behind the greenhouse project at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio. Chet Micek, a 2020 St. John’s graduate, spearheaded a project to resurrect a greenhouse on the school’s property (previously tended by student Jason Day), as his senior year’s magis project. When Micek left, he passed the torch to Wil Skaf ’21. In addition to the work of the St. John’s greenhouse where fruits and vegetables are grown, distribution to food pantries and people in need is central to the mission.
Lucy Gaven, a longtime volunteer at Chicago Jesuit Academy, describes herself as a “nutcase gardener.” Originally started as the “recess agriculture group,” CJA students under Gaven’s guidance grew vegetables and raised chickens, moving to indoor plants during the winter. For a period of time, they conducted their own farmers market on the school property, which, Gaven says, “provided many business lessons for those boys.”
Trevor Herron, teacher at Creighton Prep in Omaha and moderator of the Sustainability Club, began working with the students’ garden concept during the past school year. Herron says, “I try to be sure the ideas come from the students.” When they pitched a garden, he was thrilled. They struck a deal with Hillside Solutions, a company that collects the discarded cafeteria food and turns it to compost for sale. The club’s compost for the garden comes back from Hillside, completing a meaningful circle. Outgoing senior president of the club Aiden Chapman expanded on his involvement, branching out to a citywide group called Students for Sustainability. Club member and sophomore Ryan Quinn has begun to turn his deep interest in solar energy to a new club initiative aimed at bringing solar energy to Creighton Prep.
“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” Pope Francis says in Laudato si’. He has accelerated a universal movement and the evolving recognition that we all have a part and can contribute in some way. All of this is evident in the light that shines on these beautiful, hopeful, and impactful student projects.
Kristine Mackey, is the VP for advancement and communications for the USA Midwest Province Jesuits.