Building Green

St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto: A LEED™ Church Building Project - Eco-Theology Considerations (Part I)

June 22, 2007

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Read Part II of this 2-part article.


In 1998, the Passionist Community of Canada decided to provide a new legacy for St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin, a Roman Catholic parish in North York (the northern half of Toronto, Ontario) that it has served for over 53 years. This legacy constitutes the construction of a church that includes a 750-seat worship space, a generously proportioned narthex, offices, meeting rooms, and other support facilities for its ongoing ministries.  It has become the first church in Canada to receive Gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System.  LEED® was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council and adapted for use in Canada by the Canada Green Building Council. Both organizations bring together industry leaders to promote high-performance sustainable buildings.

The new church replaces a 500-seat, deteriorating facility that had become prohibitively expensive to operate and maintain. "While reducing energy costs was one of the reasons for building a 'green' church," says Fr. Paul Cusack, C.P., current Pastor at St. Gabriel’s, “Our primary motivation was to establish a link between the sacredness of the gathered community of Faith and the sacredness of the Earth.”  As such, the new church constitutes a dramatic departure in the design of sacred space.  Unlike most churches built to inspire a sense of other-worldliness, the new St. Gabriel’s is designed to emphasize that when we gather to worship, we do so within the greater context of creation. It has been conceived as an articulation of the eco-theology of Passionist, Father Thomas Berry, and his belief that we must work towards establishing a mutually-enhancing, human-earth relationship.  This first of two articles attempts to identify the issues raised by eco-theology and how we can work towards healing our relationship with the Earth.  The second article (Part I and Part II) will explain how St. Gabriel’s new church demonstrates how we can respond to this imperative in a tangible, realistic, and meaningful way.

It has long been apparent that we are facing an ecological crisis of alarming magnitude.  We are all inextricably part of a human process that is quickly bringing to an end the Cenozoic Age of geological history, that sixty-five million year period after the extinction of the dinosaurs when the great complexity and diversity of plant and animal life that we know today came to flourish.  In our race to control and exploit the earth’s natural resources for the benefit of humankind, we have been blind to the fact that we are shutting down the very life supporting systems that we depend upon for our survival.

In response to this growing awareness, many theologians and scholars are realizing the need to revisit scripture and the many insights on humankind’s relationship to creation that exist within our church’s rich tradition.  On June 10, 2002, Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople signed a common declaration on environmental ethics in Rome and in Venice.  In it they called for a new relationship towards the earth: 

What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attitude to view ourselves, one another, and the world around us within the perspective of the divine design for creation.

This declaration suggests that creation is integral to God’s divine plan and that as humans, we need to be reconciled not just to each other, but to all of creation.  Genesis 9:8-12 speaks of the sacred covenant that God established with humans, the animal world, and the earth.

God said to Noah and to his sons with him: See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark. I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.

This scripture passage suggests that God has a covenantal relationship with not only humankind, but with all living creatures and the earth.  When, through our pervasive presence and destructive processes we cause the extinction or endangerment of other species and their habitat, then we are interfering with the covenant that God has with those creatures. Are we then not also called upon to view our own relationship towards other life forms as part of that same covenant? If so, then dominion over gives way to responsible stewardship, encouraging us to let go of our exploitive ways, and to recognize the intrinsic value that other creatures and the rest of the earth share with humans in the eyes of God. In her book entitled Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing , eco-feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether concurs:

Although we have limited rights of use of other life forms, and also responsibilities of care and protection toward them, there is an ultimate thouness at the heart of every living being.... We...encounter each other being simultaneously as 'other' and as kin. * * * Each has its own distinct relation to God as source of life, and not necessarily for our purposes....

For eco-theologians, both scripture and creation are revelatory. They have rediscovered that early Christians, the saints and the great reformers of the church have written eloquently about creation, emphasizing its ability to provide deep spiritual instruction about the nature of God. Frederick Krueger, in his book A Cloud of Witnesses: The Deep Ecological Legacy of Christianity, provides many references to support this view. The following are just a few:

Creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him Who made and ordered it.St. Irenaeus of Lyon (129-203)

I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go the least plant may bring you a clear remembrance of the Creator.... One blade of grass or one speck of dust is enough to occupy your entire mind in beholding the art with which it has been made.  St. Basil the Great (347-407)

The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God. St. John Damascene (675-749)

God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Similarly, Thomas Berry in his The Dream of the Earth, quotes a passage from Thomas Aquinas'  Summa Theologica, to reflect this understanding: Because the divine goodness 'could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many diverse creatures, that what was wanting in one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform in creatures is manifold and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.' From this we could argue that the community of all the components of the planet Earth is primary in the divine intention.

All of these writings suggest that with every diminishment of diversity, our understanding of God is subsequently diminished. The universe in all its wondrous modes of expression, both individually and collectively, is a celebration of its divine origin. Our art, our music, our rituals, and indeed our creativity are all informed by creation. It is not coincidental that these words share the same root. Imagine what our liturgies would be like if the diversity of life on the planet was not there to provide us with inspiration. Imagine for a moment how we would decorate our churches to reflect the liturgical seasons or how our scripture and prayers would have evolved if we lived all of our lives in a landscape that resembled the moon. Any threat to the earth's ability to function in all its glory and provide the essentials of life must also be understood as a threat to religion. If the water is contaminated by pollution then it can't be drunk or used in Baptism. Berry suggests that both in its physical reality and its religious symbolism, it becomes a source not of life, but death.

Roberto Chiotti, B.E.S., B.Arch., M.T.S., OAA, MRAIC, LEED™ is a principal of Larkin Architect Limited.  In addition to obtaining his professional architectural degree in 1978, he completed his Master of Theological Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto in 1998 with a specialty in Theology and Ecology obtained through the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at St. Michael’s.


St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto: A LEED® Church Building Project - Eco-Theology Considerations (Part II)
St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto:  A LEED
® Church Building Project - The Details (Part I and Part II)

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