Catholic Charities’ solar array blessed, seen as model for ecological action by church groups
The sun shone on Catholic Charities, literally, on Oct. 17, as Archbishop Wilton Gregory blessed a solar array being installed on five acres of the agency’s land surrounding the Missionaries of Charity’s Gift of Peace home. The array of 5,072 panels is expected to be completed and operational by early 2020, and will be the largest such solar project built thus far in Washington, D.C.
“The Lord gave us a beautiful day to celebrate something pretty special for us,” said Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington at a ceremony where the project’s partners spoke about its benefits. Overhead on that blustery fall day, sunlight shone through a bank of clouds interspersed across a bright blue sky, one day after rain drenched the Washington area.
Dignitaries present included Archbishop Gregory and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who were joined by representatives of Catholic groups and by more than two dozen of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity sisters who care for the poor, elderly and sick at the neighboring home.
Msgr. Enzler noted that before moving forward on the effort, about a year and one-half ago after celebrating a morning Mass at the Gift of Peace, he asked the sisters for permission to have the large-scale project constructed on the field next to their home. He said the convent’s superior and the order’s superior in the United States said yes, as did their provincial council in Calcutta via a typewritten letter, all within one day.
The sisters, he said, are “superstars,” and provided a key part of the mosaic that made the project possible and are partners in the effort to follow Pope Francis’s call to care for the environment in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home.”
The project’s partners include Catholic Charities which is leasing the land, IGS Solar which is financing the project, and Solar Energy Services, the general contractor constructing the array. Catholic Energies – a program of the Catholic Climate Covenant based in Washington, D.C. – is the project’s developer. According to a fact sheet produced by the partner agencies, the array will generate 2.7 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, equivalent to powering about 350 homes. The proceeds will offset nearly all of the energy costs of Catholic Charities’ 12 properties in the District of Columbia and also fund maintenance costs for the Gift of Peace building.
Patrick Smith, the vice president of business development for IGS solar, said it is “among my favorite and most rewarding projects we’ve ever done,” because they know how it will benefit the community.
“This project can serve as a shining example – pun intended – of what is possible when public, private, religious and community groups work alongside each other to accomplish a common goal,” he said.
That point was also emphasized by Archbishop Gregory, who called the project “a great expression of the collaborative spirit of this local church” in working together with industry experts and community members “to make this dream possible.”
“We are also here engaged in an act of prayer,” the archbishop said, noting how St. Francis is credited with writing the Canticle of Sun, a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gift of creation.
Archbishop Gregory added, “It’s not simply political, social or economic action we’re taking. We’re praising God today in prayer… for the gift of the sun that shines on us, and more importantly, the Son that saves us.”
In his prayer of blessing, the archbishop asked God to “bless this solar array to produce energy from the light of day which you created.” Moments earlier, he had offered an invitation to prayer, encouraging people to remember to praise God as “the true light and the source of energy that gives us the power to attain eternal life.”
Before being installed in Washington in May, Archbishop Gregory led the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which had an action plan for parishes and parishioners to implement Laudato Si’.
Kevin Virostek, the vice chairman of Catholic Charities’ Board of Directors, noted that the solar array will help the agency save about $250,000 in annual energy costs, so in addition to helping care for the environment, it “enhances our ability to serve those most in need,” including the homeless, the poor in need of medical or dental care, the mentally ill, families needing assistance, and in providing an education and job opportunities to young people with developmental differences.
The benefits of the project, he said, help Catholic Charities fulfill “our mission of giving help that empowers and hope that lasts.”
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, expressed hope that similar projects could be launched in the years ahead at many of the 170 Catholic Charities agencies in 3,000 sites across the United States. “Think how many people in need we could help, and think what an expression of fidelity (that would be) to Pope Francis’s call to care for God’s creation,” she said.
Mayor Bowser likewise praised Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington for answering Pope Francis’ call to help preserve the Earth’s environment, and said the project demonstrates to other archdioceses and organizations “what they can do” in that regard. She noted that Pope Francis recently said that “the window of opportunity is still open” to take such action, and “you have seized that time.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Dan Misleh, the executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, called the project “really just a dream come true.”
“The impact I hope it has is that other Catholic agencies and institutions will see that energy efficiency and renewable energy work is the right thing to do by God’s creation and helps their bottom line, so that then supports their core mission,” he said.
The Catholic Climate Covenant was formed in 2006 to promote ecological awareness and to implement Catholic social teaching on ecology and to offer programs and partnerships to spur related action.
At the ceremony, Misleh noted that his organization “works to help our faith community in the United States rise to the challenge (of addressing) environmental injustice and climate change,” especially how it impacts the poor. He said projects like Catholic Charities’ solar array could be replicated by other Catholic institutions across the United States, promoting renewable energy while savings in energy costs could go toward “feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming immigrants (and) counseling the lost. A school can use the savings to offset tuition costs. A parish can hire that longed for youth minister. A hospital can use that savings to do more outreach to the local community.”
Praising the work of Catholic Charities and its partners on the project, Misleh said, “You have shown others a hopeful path forward in this age of climate consequences.”
Page Gravely, the executive vice president of client services for Catholic Energies, noted a pollinator meadow with flowers will be planted at the base of the solar array. About 100 evergreen and deciduous trees will be planted around the array’s perimeter, and the trees’ roots will help lessen storm water runoff. Gravely noted that with the project, “You’re not only harnessing the gift of sunlight to create clean power for the benefit of so many, but you’re also enriching the ground.”
Catholic Energies, he said, is now helping to develop about 70 clean energy projects with Catholic entities across the country, including dioceses, parishes, schools, hospitals, monasteries, retreat houses and properties owned by religious orders.
Among those attending the ceremony was Father Kevin Kennedy, the pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Washington, D.C., who said St. Gabriel’s and three other city parishes are forming a coalition “to go solar in order to eliminate our electricity bills.” The priest wore a green clerical shirt with his traditional Roman collar that morning, calling it “a symbol of the church going green.”
In remarks at the ceremony, Rick Peters, the president of Solar Energy Services, noted that Washington, D.C., has been a leader in enacting and implementing solar policy.
“Today you are witnessing the solar economy on this site,” he said, noting that workers installing the solar array there are among 250,000 people nationwide who now work in the solar industry. He also pointed out that the energy generated there would likely be utilized by nearby homeowners and businesses.
Afterward, guests toured the grounds of the solar array, including some of the Missionaries of Charity, who got a closer look at the energy matrix being installed on what used to be a grassy field near their home.
“It’s beautiful,” said Sister Lizen, the superior of the Gift of Peace convent. She said the sisters will be happy to be able to use the energy savings “to take care of more homeless people.”
Roger Perry, the vice president of Solar Energy Services which designed and is building the project, noted that about 15-20 workers have been installing the solar panels for the past two months, and about one-half of the 5,000 panels are in place. The solar panels measure about 3-feet by 6-feet and are arrayed at approximately a 35 degree angle, facing true south, he said, noting they will be able to generate some power even on overcast or rainy days.
“It’s coming together well,” said Perry, who hopes to have the array installed and working by the end of the year. “It’ll be exciting to turn it on,” he said.
The trees planted at the perimeter of the field will include cedars, pine trees, dogwoods and magnolias, and the plants in the pollinator meadow at the base of the solar panels will include Black-eyed Susans and goldenrods.
Lisa Walsh, a commercial solar developer with Solar Energy Services, said the meadow will draw birds and bees and butterflies to the field. “It will be alive with life,” she said.