Three women from Holy Family-St. Lawrence Parish in Essex Junction are on a mission to make their parish center a fully "green" operation that composts, recycles and reduces its waste to near-zero levels.
Audrey Dawson, a senior at Essex High School; her grandmother, Joyce Dawson; and Lindsey Sullivan, an engineer at Global Foundries, represent three generations of women deeply committed to environmental stewardship as an essential part of the Christian call.
Green kitchen guidelines
The trio recently implemented "Green Kitchen Guidelines" that all parish groups and outside organizations renting the upstairs parish hall will need to comply with beginning this month.
Styrofoam, cheap to purchase and effective at keeping beverages hot, will no longer be allowed in the facility. Those hosting events will be asked to utilize the ceramic dishware and utensils provided and clean them in the nochemical, water-saving dishwashers on site. Or, they will need to purchase their own paper and plastic products that meet compostable and recyclable standards. The overarching goal is to reduce the stream of solid waste going into the landfill and to raise the consciousness of parishioners around environmental issues.
"We have been entrusted by God to protect the planet we live on," said Sullivan, 32, a recycler since kindergarten. "Millennials have been taught by their teachers since very young that landfills are an important resource."
The Holy Family-St. Lawrence parish center, an airy, timber; frame structure with a fireplace and sweeping views of Essex Junction, opened in 2014. The previous building was hit by lightening and burned to the ground in 2011. The Parish Council decided to outfit the new hall with an industrial-grade kitchen that could be used for parish activities and also serve as a kind of outreach to the larger community.
Parishioner Mike Dowling books events at the hall and said the facility is in "constant motion," utilized by the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters, Essex Eats Out, the Diocese of Burlington and local schools and non-profit organizations hosting workshops.
Some 500 people are serviced through the kitchen per month, he pointed out, enough volume to make waste production a concern.
Dowling joined both Dawson women and Sullivan on a tour of the kitchen to determine where newly purchased sorter bins for compost, recycled materials and waste will be situated. The Green Kitchen Committee, as they refer to themselves, has ordered bins that slip into a caddy on wheels to make transporting byproducts to an outer shed an easy exercise. A grant through the Chittenden Solid Waste District will offset half the cost of the bins.
The elder Dawson shared with the committee that some pushback has come her way from people that want to continue buying paper products at discount stores. But those items include wax-coated paper plates and plastic silverware, which cannot be recycled or composted and will end up in the waste stream.
"There's been some initial resistance," explained Joyce Dawson, a 38-year parishioner, "which is why we have to make participation as easy as possible with a communication plan that educates people and creates buy-in."
The committee plans a "Green Grand Opening" event for parishioners and interested community members on Sunday, March 19, after the 11 a.m. Mass, to learn about the new Green Kitchen protocols, as well as to enjoy some Earth Day-themed refreshments.
"Laudato Si'" study group
The Green Kitchen initiative was born after 25 parishioners engaged in a study of Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home."
Faith formation director John McMahon, had heard interest expressed by parishioners about the pope's publication, released in 2015. That October, McMahon facilitated a study group to delve into the six chapters, one week at a time.
McMahon described the study group, which also drew participants from the Essex Catholic Community's third parish, St. Pius X in Essex Center, as a balance of people with both conservative and liberal politics.
Dawson and her granddaughter Audrey, 17, both walked into the first session not knowing the other was planning to attend.
Through spirited dialogue and communal prayer, the group explored the pope's invitation to become "protectors of God's handiwork" as "not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience."
"I felt the way the encyclical was written was a call to action," said Audrey, who participated in World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil and witnessed the detrimental impacts of air and water pollution on poor families living in slums. "Seeing how interconnected environmental and economic issues were for these people piqued my interest to do something in my own church community."
At the conclusion of the "Laudato Si'" study group, McMahon said, there was enough interest to continue meeting to consider a project that would represent the parish's good-faith effort to do its fair share.
Greening parish events
Essex Eats Out, a weekly community dinner for residents sponsored by five local churches was ramping up. Holy Family Parish Hall was hosting the event on the second Friday of the month, serving healthy dinners to 140-170 people per seating.
"Working on the meal teams and seeing all the waste generated was eye-opening," McMahon recalled. "The scale of these dinners and the parish center going into full operational mode, frankly, made us get more serious about creating an overall green initiative."
Meanwhile, Sullivan was dreaming up a new strategy for the parish's twice-annual Serve Our Neighbor Day. The prayer and service event that sends 150 parishioners of all ages into the local community to rake lawns and clean gutters for the elderly and sick of Essex Junction was generating four 35-gallon bags of garbage at its concluding picnic.
Sullivan was aiming to decrease waste creation to near-zero levels. "If you want to reduce the amount of trash you generate then you have to reduce the amount of trash you buy in the first place," she advised. That meant no longer purchasing individual packs of chips and drinks and buying food in bulk at Costco with minimal, recyclable packaging.
At the Serve Our Neighbor Day event last October, Sullivan removed the trash bins from view as a way to "interrupt the behavior" of volunteers. She sat herself beside the sorter bins and helped folks discern where to put what.
"A couple of people grouched about having to sort their trash," Sullivan recalled. "But through a 10-second interaction with each person to explain the process, we had 100-percent compliance." Once the food service was set up, there was zero-waste created. The initial food preparation phase resulted in only one-half of a 35-gallon bag headed to the landfill.
Edmundite Father Charles Ranges, pastor, has been an advocate of environmental stewardship and energy-efficiency efforts (see sidebar) in the parish from the get-go. "My pastoral philosophy is to get the people of God to have a sense of ownership for their faith community, the programs and buildings and to encourage them to stay involved," he said.
Father Ranges recently approved a separate weekly pickup for compost by the parish's hauling company. He includes Sunday Prayers of the Faithful that connect to the diocese's Year of Creation and writes occasionally about ecological justice themes in his weekly letter from the pastor.
"The beauty of the earth is a reflection of the goodness of God," he said. "Taking care of our natural environment and the planet we live on is Christ-like."
Making church buildings sustainable for future generations
Years before the Green Kitchen initiative, Dave Robideau and the parish finance council were working methodically to increase the energy-efficiency of all church buildings on the Holy Family/St. Lawrence Parish campuses in Essex Junction.
Robideau, an engineer at IBM for 35 years, recalled attending Sunday morning Mass at Holy Family Church in 2009 and struggling to hear then-Burlington Bishop Salvatore R. Matano's voice over the clanging pipes, the boiler working hard to heat the cavernous space.
Robideau knew the time had come for a new heating system.
The following year, he organized an energy assessment of Holy Family Church to establish baseline measurements. The steam furnace heating the 120-year-old church was in need of constant repair, costing the parish thousands of dollars per year, and technicians to fix an increasingly antiquated boiler system were harder to find.
With the blessings of their pastor, Edmundite Father Charles Ranges and the finance council, and input from several contractors, Robideau embarked on a project to have the church air-sealed and insulated as well as have a high-tech radiator system installed that preserved architectural aesthetics. The retrofit was offset by incentives from Vermont Gas, resulting in a more affordable price tag of $25,000.
Robideau called the project one of his most rewarding. "We essentially brought a church constructed in 1893 up to modern energy standards," he said. Air leakage numbers for Holy Family Church were cut in half, and the gas bill was cut by 66 percent to $2,500 per year.
"Part of our responsibility as good stewards is to reduce the cost of ownership on our buildings with the longer-term goal of reducing their footprint and expense for future generations," he said.
Likewise, an energy audit at St. Lawrence Church revealed opportunities to save on both electricity and natural gas usage. The initial work focused on projects that required minimal investment with the highest immediate payback.
By replacing sanctuary light bulbs with LEDs, installing wireless thermostats, eliminating a compressor that drove the heating controls for the boiler and turning off parking lot lights after 10 p.m., the church achieved a $600-$800 savings per year.
"The moral of the story is that there are numerous low-tech solutions that almost all parishes can take advantage of right away," Robideau said. "An essential way of giving back to the Church is to help it spend its limited resources as wisely as possible."
How to host a zero-waste event
It's very satisfying to host an event and generate NO garbage. It's also easier than it sounds.
Here are some ideas to help achieve that goal:
• Reduce garbage generated at the source. Purchase as many foods and raw materials in recyclable or compostable packaging as possible. This could also mean buying in bulk instead of individual packages.
• Use plates/silverware that you wash, dry and reuse.
• You cannot recycle paper or plastic plates/dishes with food stuck to them; if you don't want to rinse off food scraps, then go with compostable plates like Chinet.
• Leftover foods, plates (i.e. paper, cardboard), utensils (i.e. bamboo) and almost everything left behind after a meal is compostable. Napkins and paper towels often make up the bulk of compost even if you use recyclable items or durables. Any amount of compost you decide to collect contributes to less trash production.
• Eliminate all use of Styrofoam containers.
• Identify a Green Leader or Green Team or someone who is in charge of making sure everything gets thrown in the right bin at your event.
• Hide the trash can.
If you'd like a comprehensive copy of the Holy Family-St. Lawrence Green Kitchen Guidelines,
By Marybeth Christie Redmond