On a snowy Sunday in February, in one of the back rooms of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish, a group of about 30 environmentally-minded folks sang along to a video of Pete Seeger’s “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” Recorded aboard the sloop that Seeger converted into a concert venue in 1969 to promote cleaning up the Hudson River, the song’s rollicking beat belies the seriousness of its subject: the Deepwater Horizon oil-spill catastrophe of 2010. “And when drill, baby, drill, leads to spill, baby, spill, God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you,” one verse goes.
Screened a week after Seeger’s death, the tribute was part of the monthly Eco-Sabbath hosted by Dennis O’Hara, director of the Elliot Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the University of St. Michael’s College. For each gathering in the North York church, O’Hara prepares material with an environment bent, often riffing off the mass’s homily. On this Sunday, he drew on a line the parish’s priest had read from the Book of Malachi—“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me”—to set up videos of ecological activists he dubbed “messengers for earth.” Along with the one of Seeger, O’Hara screened YouTube clips of Dorothy Stang, a nun murdered by ranchers in 2005 for fighting to protect Brazilian rainforests, and Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Kenyan who empowered women in Africa to combat deforestation.
The Passionists, an order of Catholicism formed in 18th-century France, weren’t always this green. As evidenced by the order’s name, it has historically explored the meaning behind the suffering that Jesus endured in the last period of his life. According to O’Hara, in the 1960s, priest and eco-theologian Thomas Berry took this focus further to interpret the environmental crisis as “The Passion of the Earth.” His idea had particular resonance in Ontario. In 1965, Toronto Passionists set up a retreat centre on Lake Erie, where visitors could discuss the troubling relationship between humans and their home.
O’Hara himself joined the Elliot Allen Intsitute in 1991. For years, the Toronto native’s work as a chiropractor and naturopath meant that he dealt with suffering, but when patients began to come to him with a chronic disorder that could not be healed—later revealed to be HIV—his life changed course. “Suddenly, I was working with dying people,” he said. “It raised questions about the meaning of life and living with suffering that my education hadn’t prepared me for.” He returned to school, choosing the field of eco-theology. Working with Father Stephen Dunn, one of the parish’s priests and also a professor at U of T, O’Hara became a fixture at the retreat centre. When it transformed in the late ’90s into the monthly Eco-Sabbaths, he regularly attended, becoming its facilitator in 2002.
Besides being a home to the group, St. Gabriel’s building itself acts as an eco-educator. In 2006, the church was completely rebuilt around the idea of sustainability, becoming the first place of worship in Canada to be awarded gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. Plaques in the building offer specifics: The waterless urinals and low-flow kitchen reduce water use by 47 per cent; more than half the materials used were recycled, salvaged, or regionally produced; Father Dunn’s parking spot is home to a Honda Civic Hybrid.
After the videos were shown, discussion revealed that the community included some messengers for earth. Margaret Myatt, a Sister of St. Joseph, spoke of her new Eco-Spirituality Consulting Group, which works with Catholic schools to create gardens where students can grow vegetables for credit (and also to eat). Another member broached the need to make lifestyle changes. “How can I accommodate some discomfort in my life for a larger purpose?” he asked, then explained that he was considering giving up his family car.
Of the current climate crisis, O’Hara said that “we have a great scientific explanation of what’s going wrong.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t change a darn thing. You’ve got to speak to people’s hearts, to their sense of love. That’s what religions do. Religions are about conversions and transformation. So we try to subtly—and sometimes, I think, subversively—work on that with people in the pews.”
670 Sheppard Ave. E., 416-221-8866, stgabrielsparish.ca.