A California retreat center’s latest effort to implement Pope Francis’s vision of “integral ecology” is expected to save Catholics in its region more than $2 million over the next 25 years.
Care for creation and sound financial stewardship converged this past December when Bishop Joseph Brennan of Fresno dedicated a 197-kilowatt solar array on the grounds of St. Anthony Retreat and Conference Centers in Three Rivers, California.
The new field of 555 solar panels takes the diocesan-run retreat center complex – which sits on a 62-acre plot of woodlands next to the Sequoia National Park – effectively off-the-grid for at least the 25-year guaranteed life span of the solar array.
According to the director of the retreat center, Father John Greisbach, other solar arrays in the region have lasted long past their guaranteed window. He told Crux that “it could very well be that for the next almost half a century, we’re going to be able to benefit from this.”
Those benefits begin with a significant environmental impact, with retreat center officials estimating that the shift to solar will offset 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, which is roughly equivalent to taking 7 cars off the roads.
Retreat center officials also anticipate annual savings of $127,000. Donors Manuel and Shirley Maciel covered the initial costs of the solar panels, so those yearly savings will be passed directly to the diocesan parishes that subsidize the retreat center.
The project was inspired by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter Laudato si’, which put the language of integral ecology and care for the earth at the heart of Catholic teaching.
These kinds of efforts to implement Laudato si’ can double as savvy financial moves for Catholic parishes too, according to the retreat center’s business manager, Mike Hand.
For example, Hand told Crux, “There are many economic benefits (to solar arrays) beyond saving on your monthly parish power budgets, such as formats out there that allow you to do it with basically no money down.”
In at least one other California diocese, the potential that Hand refers to is already being realized. According to the California Catholic Conference, the Diocese of Monterey has already seen one-third of its parishes, offices, and facilities make the solar jump.
Julia Fracker, marketing and development director for the retreat center, situated the solar array project as the first in a number of such projects unfolding across the Diocese of Fresno. She told Crux that St. Anthony Retreat and Conference Centers is “kind of leading the way for the diocese, and they want to use us as a template for how to get other parishes and entities in the diocese to follow suit.”
Greisbach described the solar project as part-and-parcel of the center’s long-standing commitments to caring for creation and responding to Francis’s ecological concerns.
“When we do our retreats here, we’re always incorporating mother nature into those experiences, doing the very best we can to help people understand how to integrate our environment with our faith,” explained Greisbach.
In years past, these environmental commitments inspired the center’s well water filtration and treatment system. They also informed key decisions during the construction of the center’s youth conference building, such as the use of R-37 rated insulated concrete forms – Greisbach calls them “giant Lego blocks for adults” – and the addition of special energy-saving tint to the windows.
The youth conference building’s insulated concrete forms are not only highly efficient, explained Greisbach, but they also ensure that it “cannot be knocked down by an earthquake, cannot be burned down – which is important for us these days – and, we believe, cannot be destroyed by a high-school sophomore, although the word is still out on that!”
For Greisbach, the same core values that guided the construction of the youth building were present during the planning and construction of the solar array. He proudly noted that through careful planning aimed at causing the “least impact possible,” the large solar project required the removal of only two trees from the center’s blue oak wooded grounds.
In terms of next steps pertaining to Laudato si’, Greisbach said that the center will continue to honor its commitments to protecting humanity’s common home when it hosts a summer symposium on the encyclical in conjunction with the nearby Sequoia National Park.
Park rangers and naturalists will give tours to symposium participants that show the effects of global warming at various elevations throughout the park. Back at the retreat center, a theologian will lead retreatants through “theological reflection on the 10 green commandments that flow from Laudato si’,” said Greisbach.
By that time, many expect that Francis will have made his next major entry into his body of teachings on integral ecology and ecological conversion. Reports suggest that Francis will soon release an apostolic exhortation that draws together key insights from the Amazon Synod.
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