Green Catholicism, Passionist Style: St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Church, Toronto, Third Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2007
Environmental awareness has generally increased in the past generation, and many western churches will at least seek to save some energy costs by weather-stripping their doors, caulking their windows, and blowing light insulation into their walls. Some churches do more. For example, Trinity Episcopal Church, Boston, as part of a $53-million restoration project that was completed at the end of 2004, used materials made from sustainable resources and tapped deep wells for geothermal heating. But only a rare few aim for the North American green standard for buildings, which is certification by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED makes sure that a building site has been prepared with a minimal ecological footprint, that renewable resources have been used, that energy and water are being conserved, that air is being kept clean, and that the environment is not being polluted, among other things. Its detailed and very modern performance standards make the LEED system quite impractical for renovations of historic buildings, including old churches. But there are a few instances of LEED-certified worship spaces in new constructions, including Keystone Community Church in Ada, Michigan; Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, Ohio.
In Canada the only LEED-certified church is the Passionist parish of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Roman Catholic Church-or St. Gabe's-on Sheppard Avenue East, in the Willowdale section of Toronto. As soon as it was consecrated in November 2006, this stunning building was claiming public attention. Lisa Rochon in the Globe and Mail of Toronto called it a "miracle" (5 October 2006). Christopher Hume, the influential architecture critic for the Toronto Star, identified it as "one of those rare projects that everyone should visit" (17 May 2007). In May 2007 it won the "green design" award in the city's annual Green Toronto competition.
Its environmental engineering alone is not, however, what makes St. Gabriel's important for the church historian, theologian, and liturgist. What makes it important is its ecotheological design, inspired by the thought of Thomas Berry (b. 1914), a former professor at Fordham University, who loved the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Berry, like the staff members of St. Gabriel's, is a member of the Congregation of the Passion, a Roman Catholic community founded by an Italian known as St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775). The founder promoted meditation on the sufferings of Jesus; today's Passionists also contemplate "the Passion endured by creation itself in the despoliation and exploitation of our Earth," in the words of one of St. Gabriel's websites (www .thepassionists.org/st-gabriel-ontario-parish.html; the church has another website at www.stgabrielsparish.ca). The architect for St. Gabriel's new building, Roberto Chiotti, has earned degrees not only in architecture but also in theology, and for the latter he studied with a Passionist priest and professor, Stephen Dunn, the founder of the Elliott Allen Centre for Ecology and Theology in Toronto.
St. Gabriel's was established in 1951 north of Toronto on seven-and-a-half acres next to a rural road that cut through farmland. At that time the Roman Catholic archbishop of Toronto recognized that this area would be growing in population, and he enlisted three religious orders, including the Passionists, to build and administer churches there. The first St. Gabriel's seated five hundred in a drafty brick building. The archdiocese's contract with the Passionists gave them authority over St. Gabriel's pleno jure and in perpetuum. Congregational leaders say that when canon lawyers read these terms today, their mouths gape. Such a sweeping grant of jurisdiction is no longer given. …