The boiler chugging in the basement of St. Gabriel Catholic School in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood was as big as a locomotive. When plumbers installed it in the 1930s, this equipment represented the latest and greatest coal-burning technology. But that was nearly eight decades ago. The school, located next to the parish’s church, needed an upgrade, one that would cut energy use as well as costs. So when St. Gabriel’s summer school ended in June, the Archdiocese of Chicago got to work.
Removing the two old boilers took a few days. “They chop ’em up and take them out piece by piece,” says Jake Preciado, the construction manager who oversees the mechanics, electrical, and plumbing for the archdiocese. The new models, in comparison, “fit right through the doorway,” he says. And they run on cleaner burning natural gas.
The project at St. Gabriel is part of an ongoing initiative to monitor and lower water and energy consumption by the Archdiocese of Chicago, with its hundreds of churches and 2,700 buildings (each parish typically has five buildings that include a school, church, rectory, convent, and office building). This summer, Archbishop Blase Cupich and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy took that effort one step further when they announced that the archdiocese would be the first in the country to monitor water and energy use as well as carbon emissions.
Going low-carb is a direct response to the recent call to fight climate change by Pope Francis, who recently arrived in Washington, D.C., for his first visit to the United States. While here, the pontiff will continue to address carbon pollution and poverty, as well as the relationship between the two issues. “Those who do not think religious organizations should have an opinion on climate change misunderstand the former and the moral dimension of the latter,” said Cupich at a July press conference announcing Chicago’s initiative. “We are called to care for those sickened by pollution, house those displaced by environmental calamities, and heal the spirits of those—especially our youth—who are disheartened by a world where human survival is now in question.”
Prior to the archbishop announcement, a team of Chicago archdiocese members and experts from other organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, had already been working to cut the Catholic Church’s energy and water use to comply with city ordinances. They wrote a water-conservation plan (put together by a priest who also happens to be an engineer) and have been watching the power meters for buildings larger than 50,000 square feet, says Jen Shankie, a data analyst for the project. Looking at carbon emissions is a natural extension of those efforts.
The EPA’s free efficiency-tracking tool, Energy Star Portfolio Manager, will rate Chicago’s church buildings based on how well they do. Keeping tabs on its environmental footprint isn’t only good for the climate, but it also puts more dollars into the church’s collection baskets, so to speak. The EPA estimates that efficiency measures could save the Archdiocese of Chicago up to $9 million a year. At St. Gabriel alone, Preciado expects to shave $45,000 off its annual costs, equivalent to about 25 percent of its energy costs.
The Windy City’s churches could serve as a model for others across the country, and not just the Catholic or Christian ones. “I think this is something valuable to do overall whether it’s Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist,” Preciado says. “I just think it’s something we all should be doing,”
So far, the parishes are installing rain barrels and gardens to catch water. To conserve energy, Preciado spends some of his days in basements, checking out their boilers. When he ventures into a building’s bowels, he can usually tell if the boiler needs replacing just by looking at it (if it’s as big as a locomotive, it’s got to go). To verify his hunches, though, he pores over electricity bills before calling the mechanics. So far, he’s worked on nearly 25 projects with at least three more on the horizon.
Preciado will test the new equipment at St. Gabe’s this autumn, and come Christmas, parishioners will be able to find some carbon redemption.