The Environment

Care for our common home

“Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us… This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Pope Francis, Laudato Si, Care for our Common Home.

In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi called for the care of the earth and all its living things as a way to reverence God and the gifts that we were given. Centuries later as climate change, pollution and unchecked use of our natural resources threaten our planet and our way of life, Pope Francis calls upon all of us to work together to address the causes and results of climate change and the ongoing destruction of our environment. In his encyclical Laudato Si, Care for our Common Home, our Holy Father tells us that “things can change,” but only if “the whole human family” works together.

As Franciscan women, we minister to those most in need, including soil, water, air and plant and animal life. Our Mission Statement says it all: “Rooted in the Gospel, we are sisters to all, serving with reverence, justice and compassion.”

Our sisters taking action

Fracking Operation

Fracking operation

2012 was the 50th anniversary year of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” a book which in many ways inspired the environmental movement, nationally and internationally. Rachel Carson was born and raised in Springdale, Pa., a town about 15 miles north of Pittsburgh, along the Allegheny River. As a child, Rachel was fascinated by the river and the natural world around her. She credits her mother for introducing her to the beauties of nature, despite the negative features of the industries in the area. She studied at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and earned a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. As a marine biologist, she worked for 15 years for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a writer and researcher.

In “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson carefully and coherently detailed the threats pesticides pose to public health and the environment. The prospect of chemicals like DDT leading us to a “spring without songbirds” was a chilling warning of the dangers we faced. As Time magazine put it in 1999: “Before there was an environmental movement there was one brave woman and her very brave book.”

Rachel Carson was attacked by the chemical industry using tactics developed by the tobacco industry:

  • Discredit the messenger;
  • Foster doubt and denial about the science;
  • Call for additional research.

These same tactics are still used by opponents of any environmental changes.

While the future of Mother Earth is endangered by many neglects and improper uses, one crucial concern is hydrofracking. The issues are growing. Drilling for natural gas by hydrofracking may be a source of income for some in the present, but who will be able to enjoy the future? Groundwater contamination and cancer-causing air pollution, constant noise and countless diesel trucks, giant ponds full of radioactive wastewater and chemical spills–this is the fracking industry. Both New York and Pennsylvania are coveted locations for natural gas extraction by hydrofracking. Can we live with this?

Fracking is inherently dangerous. Air emissions from fracking put nearby residents at greater risk of cancer, as well as a number of neurologic and respiratory illnesses. Fracking generates millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive wastewater, which can spill and contaminate drinking water. Some people living near gas wells have found heavy metals like arsenic and carcinogenic toxins in their blood. There is no such thing as safe fracking.

Rachel Carson’s issues were not about fracking, but about the health of planet earth and those who call earth home. Our concerns must also be about life and health—for ourselves and future generations of living things. We must understand the complex environmental effects we are witnessing and care enough to do things differently. Rachel Carson would be glad to know that we are still watching, listening and learning in this 21st century.

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Sister Donna Zwigart leads the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Mount Alvernia bioswale adjacent to Hawthorne Road.

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Rain garden located adjacent to the front parking lots at Mount Alvernia.

Bioswale-Layout

One of the largest bioswales in the country was blessed on Wednesday, Oct. 9 on the campus of Mount Alvernia in Millvale, Pa. This bioswale spans 400 feet along the Hawthorne Road side of the campus, is six feet deep and 15 feet wide. A bioswale is a sunken portion of land engineered to divert storm water and absorb it or slow its movement toward eventual absorption in the ground. This captured storm water from the campus and the roadway will help to mitigate some of the local flooding in Millvale such as the eight feet of water Millvale experienced as a result of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. A second bioswale or rain garden is designed to collect water from a parking lot and hillside on campus. Both sites enable the water to be absorbed back into the ground naturally rather than having it run off and collect in the sewer system. Flowering perennials, trees and plants native to the area help create the look of a natural stream bed.

The bioswales are part of a larger storm water mitigation project. The borough of Millvale, with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and TreeVitalize Pittsburgh, received a grant of more than $700,000 through the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) to plant 850 trees in the Borough of Millvale and build the two bioswales at Mount Alvernia. Of the 850 trees planted, 24 were planted at Mount Alvernia. Another grant was received through the Allegheny County Conservation District to monitor the water flow of the bioswales for up to one year to determine the efficacy of the bioswales. In addition, two structures called weirs are on the Hawthorne Road bioswale to monitor the flow and volume of the water as well as the sediments in the water.

Neighbors living along Hawthorne Road were present for the blessing of the bioswalses as well as representatives from various entities of Millvale, the City of Pittsburgh, environmental organizations, project managers and sisters. Following the blessing, short presentations were given on the design and monitoring of the bioswales. S. Pat O’Donnell, WPA minister, connected St. Francis’ love of all created things with our responsibility to nature. “… we are called to recognize our responsibility to treasure and care for the gifts of the earth so that all living creatures benefit from their presence. Today, we are celebrating a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole earth community as well as our local communities.”

The Millvale Green Infrastructure is a joint project of Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh, Tree Vitalize Pittsburgh, Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy along with the borough of Millvale and the Sisters of St. Francis. In addition, Best Feeds, a local outdoor design company completed landscaping.

How you can go about sharing resources

Reduce, reuse and recycle.
We hear this so often and think it is a buzz word or fad, but it is one of the solutions to the over consumption of natural resources.

Another strategy is called “cradle to grave.” It calls us to look at how the materials needed for an item were obtained, processed, distributed then disposed of. The religious definition of ‘sustainable development’ is to live simply so that others may simply live. It sounds like a bumper sticker on a car, but it rings true.

The three pillars of sustainable development: economics, social development and environmental protection, demonstrate the interconnectedness of us all.

When the environment is degraded, the economic and social well-being of the people is also affected. This is what St. Francis tried to demonstrate in his writings and his lifestyle, and what we Franciscans try to emulate. We truly are one world, one people.

You may want to consider your consumption patterns and see where you can make changes that decrease your economic, social and environmental impacts so that the dignity of each human person
is realized