Catholic school students learn to be stewards of creation

Arvada school’s Earth Day project aims to cleanup historic neighborhood

Roxanne King

In Pope Francis’ second encyclical, “Laudato si,” (“Praise be to you”) the pope urges the faithful to be good stewards of the Earth. The title is taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful Canticle of the Sun, which praises God for the wonder of creation.

Inspired by the pope’s document, Erin Hensley, a parishioner at Shrine of St. Anne Church in Arvada, used it to support her case for re-instituting recycling at the parish school. She recently mobilized a Green Team comprised of 20 enthusiastic students from kindergarten through seventh grade and on April 3 kicked off the recycling program with funny skits at the school assembly. 

For Earth Day, April 22, the Green Team, joined by others from the school community, will do a litter cleanup around the parish campus and in their historic Old Town Arvada neighborhood.

“I wanted my children to attend St. Anne’s and grow strong religious roots, but I also wanted to know they were caring for the physical roots beneath their feet—God’s creation,” Hensley, the mother of two students at the school and one toddler, told the Denver Catholic

Hensley’s efforts to reduce waste at the school won’t just help the environment but will also have a positive financial impact on the parish community.

“The quest to reinstate recycling actually saved the school and church $3,500 annually,” Hensley said. “The fact that we were able to save this much money in the transition and that it’s happening during Earth Month gives me goose-bumps!”

School principal Patricia Hershwitzky said that while the financial savings is terrific, the real benefit is calling the students to stewardship and to living lives of Christian dignity.

“Caring for the environment and making it orderly is a reflection of our awareness as being children of God,” she said.

Hensley aims to make the cleanup fun by using an app called Litterati, which has been used to help communities tackle environmental concerns and come up with sustainable solutions. Litterati notes that litter blights the environment, endangers wildlife and hurts the planet.

“With our current throwaway society, we as Catholics are called to demonstrate a love for human life but also a love for all life—the life of our planet. We must be mindful of what we buy and discard moments later,” Hensley said, noting that in “Laudato si,” Pope Francis writes, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Hensley assessed that the school collects 10,000-plus gallons of trash a month, but that nearly half of that can be recycled and kept out of landfills.

“Over the course of the school year, that’s enough plastic, paper and aluminum to cover every square foot of our gymnasium up to our knees—and now it’s going to make new paper and plastic materials,” she said.

The school’s efforts to recycle paper, she continued, should save nearly 100 trees a year, as well as 30,000 gallons of water and 10 barrels of oil from not having to produce paper pulp from those trees.

Next school year, Hensley hopes to expand recycling into the school lunchroom and, eventually, to add composting and perhaps a school garden. To help achieve those goals, she’s applied for a Green Up Our Schools grant, which provides money for elementary school waste reduction, recycling and composting plans.

“She’s a visionary in this,” Hershwitzky said. “And she puts the feet behind the vision.”

Our Lady of Fatima fifth-grade teacher Maddy Crouse and her students head the recycling efforts at her Lakewood school. This year she and her fifth-graders led the move to expand the school’s recycling efforts into the lunchroom, which uses foam trays that were being thrown away daily.

“The (fifth-grade) students put together a Power Point presentation and talked to the other students about the difference between landfill trash and recycling,” Crouse said. “(Now) we have (student) trash supervisors who stand by the bins to help answer questions, especially from younger students, to make sure the trash and recycling stay separated.”

Not only do the recycling projects educate youths about where trash goes and its environmental impact, Crouse and Hensley said, but they help the youths to build vital leadership skills and empower them to know they can make positive change.

“This is discipleship in action,” Hensley said. “There are many ways Catholics are being awesome disciples regarding protecting human life; this helps other living things as well.”

COMING UP: How deacons give life to the Church

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The calling and ministries of the diaconate are as varied as the men who serve in it. For Deacon Don Tracy, the call to the diaconate was a long one, and his first years as a deacon didn’t match his expectations.

“Feeling unsettled with a restless heart for many years, I did not understand at the time that I was experiencing the first stirrings of my call to the diaconate by the Holy Spirit. As I searched to find the peace that was missing in my life, I went down several false paths, believing that a career change to one of the service-oriented professions would give me the tranquility I desired,” Deacon Tracy said.

“I eventually discerned that I should not change careers…but those feelings came to a head when I joined a men’s group called ‘That Man Is You.’ I felt as if I were being turned inside out and sought the help of deacons for guidance. With their assistance, I began to discern that my restless heart came from God calling me to the diaconate,” he added.

But shortly after becoming a deacon, his first ministry became caring for his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his ordination.

“For the next two years, my life was far different than the deacon brothers I was ordained with who were beginning ministries in their parishes and for the people of the archdiocese,” Deacon Tracy said. “Instead, my ministry as a husband and deacon was to care for my wife through what seemed like countless medical appointments and hospital stays. And when my dear wife entered her final weeks on earth last year, I did everything I could think of to help her get to heaven.”

His ministry to his wife as she passed from this world to the next profoundly changed his life — now, he hopes to begin a ministry to those who are struggling through illness or are grieving the loss of loved ones.

Deacon Tracy’s ministry to his wife in the first two years of his diaconate was just one way he was personally called to serve; many deacons, in addition to assisting the pastors in their parish, do much more than we realize.

On average, the 207 deacons spend 60 hours a week serving, between their normal jobs, family obligations, and ministries, according to Deacon Joseph Donohoe, director of deacon personnel at the Archdiocese of Denver.

Deacons assist the priest by ministering baptisms, witnessing marriages, performing funerals and burial services, distributing Holy Communion and preaching homilies.

Outside of this, they also assist in teaching RCIA, baptism preparation, marriage preparation, Bible studies, funerals, retreats, parish missions, visiting prisons and juvenile detention centers, bringing communion to sick patients in hospitals or hospice, visiting the elderly, working with immigrants and working in homeless shelters.

“We’re active in [sacraments], but we also have an obligation as deacons to respond to the archbishop in areas of ministries outside of the parish,” Deacon Donohoe said. “And this is in addition to their secular work and family obligations. So they’re very dedicated, and they do this for love of God. They’re not paid, their obligation is to the archbishop and the Church.”

Deacon Kevin Heckman of Blessed Sacrament Parish spends much of his ministry in Children’s Hospital. After getting a job there in 2009, he introduced himself to the hospital chaplain and asked if there was anyone doing Catholic ministry or communion service, and the chaplain “jumped at it.”

“I developed a relationship with the chaplains and got called to visit patients and bring communion to people. I’ve done about 50 emergency baptisms and praying with families. It’s been really rewarding, and I know that I have a special call to hospital ministry,” Deacon Heckman said.

Deacon Heckman has had the privilege of praying with a mother and her stillborn baby — just one of many experiences that he “won’t ever forget” in his service as a deacon.

Quite frankly, I am in awe of the deacons in the diocese, they are so dedicated to their ministry, and each time I talk to one of them, I get inspired and filled with awe over some of the things they do.”

So what does the call to the vocation of the diaconate look like?

It’s different for everyone, Deacon Donohoe said.

“Some guys get beat over the head. Others are less clear, it’s really just a continuous conversation with God, wanting to do his will. And if his will calls them to the laying on of hands by the archbishop, then he allows God to lead him in that direction,” Deacon Donohoe said.

If a man feels what he suspects may be a call to the diaconate, the process of discernment is years-long, similar to that of a priestly or religious vocation.

“They need to be called by God, and they need to be called by the Church. So it’s a four year process, from the time of the applications to the time they’re ordained, and it’s a discernment process,” Deacon Donohoe said. “There’s an intense amount of prayer involved, as well as a looking into their soul and spirit to discover what God is calling them to. Sometimes God is just calling them to the formation, and not ordination, and many times, they are called to ordination. It’s really a powerful experience.”

The stories of Deacon Tracy and Deacon Heckman are just a few of many men who are offering their lives to Christ through their vocation as a deacon.

“Quite frankly, I am in awe of the deacons in the diocese, they are so dedicated to their ministry, and each time I talk to one of them, I get inspired and filled with awe over some of the things they do,” Deacon Donohoe said. “They all have these stories that are just tremendous, because they’re all in prayer. They all want to listen, and they want to love God and the people of God.”

Not only are these men faithful to God’s will and serving his people, their families are tremendous witnesses to the world as well.

“Deacons in this diocese are tremendously dedicated to their ministry and to their family and they set a very positive example to the secular world in witnessing the true presence of Jesus Christ and the Church to a world in need of [him], including their marriages,” said Deacon Donohoe. “It’s not just the deacons, it’s their families. Their families give up much for their husbands and dads to be deacons, but they also do that for love of God.”

For more information about the deacons of the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/office-diaconate.