A Worship Space of Earthly Connection

Dennis Patrick O’Hara

Given the influence of Passionist priest Thomas Berry (1914-2009) on the leadership of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in Toronto, it was not surprising that his call for mutually enhancing Earth-human relationships that honor the sacredness of creation would inspire the green design of that parish’s church, resulting in a new church building and a fresh theological witness.

Built in 1952-53, the previous church was well past its prime by 1998 – both structurally with the rise of energy costs and liturgically with the changes brought by the Second Vatican Council. Architect Roberto Chiotti, a St. Gabriel’s parishioner who studied theology through the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the University of St. Michael’s College, was hired to design a church that would demonstrate the link between the sacredness of the gathered faith community and the sacredness of the rest of creation. Following consultations with the parish community and with Berry himself – who inspired so many in the ecological movement worldwide – Chiotti shepherded the building of an awardwinning, environmentally sensitive green church that opened in 2006.

By locating most of the parking spaces below ground and giving preference to car-pooling, alternative energy vehicles, and cyclists, St. Gabriel’s could build its new church on a much smaller urban lot – and allow gardens to predominate rather than paved asphalt. When parishioners ascend from the parking garage into the narthex via a sun-filled staircase, they are met by a living wall of plants who filter the air of impurities year-round while serving as humidifiers in the winter and dehumidifiers in summer months. The sound of water trickling over the plants’ roots reminds the parishioners of their baptism, their entrance into the faith community.

That Other Book of Revelation

In the worship space, the parishioners take their places in the antiphonal seating, and when turning to hear the Scripture readings, they also look through the argon-filled glass panes along the entire south wall and gaze on that other book of revelation – creation. The enormous southern window permits the winter sun with its low arc to provide most of the heat during the cold months, while a large southern overhang from the roof furnishes cooling shade when the summer sun arcs higher in the sky.

The other three walls are made of exposed architectural concrete, framed at their summit by stainedglass skylights in the roof. As the sun ascends in the sky, light passing through colored glass panels projects rich hues of yellow, green, red, blue, and purple. These colors gradually move down the bare walls and eventually onto the floor, in sync with Earth’s rotation. The sun’s presence creates the liturgical space with the faithful and reminds them of their profound connection with the rest of the sacred Earth community.

Reflecting the links between the cosmic and liturgical seasons, the sun’s low arc across the winter sky results in muted light through the stained glass, emphasizing the darkness of the winter solstice in contrast to the new light of hope offered by the birth of Christ. Similarly, as the Lenten season gives way to Easter, the gradual ascent of the sun’s skyward arc brings richer colors into the worship space, until the full riotous collage of colors once again reaches down the walls and onto the floors in a joyous celebration.

Eco-theology in Action

In addition to reawakening the parishioners to the cosmological sensibilities of their Catholic faith, the design of the new church has reduced the ecological footprint of their building (63 percent less energy and 47 percent less water consumed, with 13 percent of the building’s materials salvaged from the old church). Parishioners sit in pews recycled from the previous church, and face a baptismal font, pulpit and altar made of reclaimed marble from the old building.

Yet even before the new green church, the congregation explored themes of eco-theology, eco-spirituality, and eco-justice for years through homilies, pastoral programs, and monthly EcoSabbath Gatherings (eco-theological reflections on the lectionary readings for that Sunday). After decades of such ministry, the promulgation of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si’, in 2015 seemed to validate the foresight and focus of Thomas Berry and St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish.

Back to the Garden

One example of how the spirit of this deepening eco-praxis shapes the parish is the work of the Garden Ministry. By allowing plants to grow as they wished for several years, the members of the garden ministry learned about the various types of soils and micro-ecosystems that covered the church grounds. They were then able to plant specific types of vegetation to rehabilitate and enhance the biodynamics of different sections of the gardens. Finally, after a couple of years of repair and rejuvenation, they replanted the gardens yet again, using the permaculture principles of Hügelkultur to encourage moisture retention and natural fertilization from organic decomposition in the soils.

This latest version of the gardens includes a north garden that borders on a residential street, creating an interactive urban orchard. Not only has the garden-orchard increased parishioners’ awareness of their bioregion and their appreciation for the sacredness and beauty of creation, it has nurtured a sense of community among the gardeners in our midst, stirred the interest of the parish youth group, and welcomed unexpected interactions with our neighbors, both human and otherwise, including residences for the latter and food for both. In a busy urban neighborhood, the garden-orchard provides a peaceful sensory space of sight, smell, and touch where people can simply be, or be with other members of Earth’s communities, or spend time reflecting and renewing. The principles of integral ecology promoted in Laudato si’ are flourishing throughout the parish land and its pastoral works.

Distress and Renewal

Even as the homilies and EcoSabbath Gatherings explore the complexities of our ecological challenges from theological, spiritual, and justice perspectives, providing both insight and hope, the building and the gardens witness to the same without spoken words. They situate the parishioners and our neighbors within a larger Earth community that is both distressed and renewing, just like the humans who share this plot of land known as St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish. They remind us that we are part of a sacred and purposeful universe that continues to inform and nurture, despite our missteps, always welcoming our efforts to act in ways that are mutually enhancing for us and the rest of God’s good creation.

Dennis Patrick O’Hara, a member of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in Toronto, is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Michael’s College and director of the Elliott Allen Institute of Theology & Ecology at the University of Toronto. See stgabrielsparish.ca for more information.