Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Fr. John Kerns speaks during dedication of St. Juan Diego Church, a green house of worship.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Fr. John Kerns speaks during dedication of St. Juan Diego Church, a green house of worship.
Eight years ago, St. Juan Diego Parish celebrated its first Mass in a gymnasium.  
The pastor, Father John Kerns, called it a “churchnasium” because a church is not about the physical structure; it is about the community.

But let us be honest: parishioners of St. Juan Diego eagerly awaited the opening of their new physical church last fall for many reasons. One reason was that the new house of worship reflects parishioners' desire to care for God’s creation.  

Stewardship of God’s creation is one of the seven principles of Catholic social teaching. We Catholics believe that the goods of the earth are gifts from God and that we are not simply consumers of these goods but that we have a responsibility to care for them.

In September 2007, hundreds of parishioners met to discuss their priorities in building a church campus. We had these conversations in large groups and in small one-to-one listening sessions. That resulted in three priorities: a dedicated worship space, sustainability and accessibility.

The parish dedicated itself to reducing, reusing, recycling and shopping locally, all with the support of Father Kerns, the building committee (which included a sub-committee responsible for “sustainability”), and the Social Justice Committee.

Entering the new church, one is immediately struck by the beauty of six large support columns. The columns were crafted from six Douglas fir trees that were felled to make room for the sanctuary. The wood for the walls is from Oregon forests, the wood for the pews from U.S. forests, and the baptismal font is made from local granite.

American households and businesses consume a lot of electricity for light, heat and gadgets. Power plants use a lot of energy to generate the electricity. But at St. Juan Diego, hours, weeks and months of planning went into minimizing the need for electricity.

Past the six support columns is a concrete floor. Buried under it are tubes that carry warm water in the winter and cool water in the summer, radiating and moderating the internal temperature year-round.

Natural ventilation will comfort parishioners during Oregon’s milder seasons. Low operable windows and high operable windows will allow for natural air currents to warm or cool the space. Should the August days be sweltering or the January weeks frigid, a backup system, which uses a fuel efficient heat pump, will comfort worshipers.  

Natural light — most call it peaceful and meditative — provides much of the illumination, especially dozens of large windows from which light floods the sanctuary. Tubes that capture and direct sunlight show the way in bathrooms and storage rooms where there would be no natural light.

Households and businesses not only consume electricity; they also generate their own heat that escapes to the detriment of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Located on a hill across the street from PCC Rock Creek, it is impractical for families to bicycle to Sunday Mass. St. Juan Diego needs a parking lot. Because of an above-average ratio of attendance at Mass to the number of cars that transported parishioners there, St. Juan Diego will need a smaller-than-expected parking lot and much thought went into reducing the heat island effect of a parking lot while retaining some of the beautiful trees.  

The five-acre site was originally forested by firs and oaks. While the site is small for a new church, we wanted to save as much of the forested area as possible. St. Juan Diego achieved this with an innovative parking lot design. The design provides the minimum required parking spaces without having to deforest the area.  The smaller the parking lot, the smaller the heat island. The parking lot has a unique feature called “compressed” parking where some spaces will hold two or three cars, blocking the ones in the middle.  

With a bit of planning and a parking attendant — St. Juan Diego has its own “Parking Czar” — we can park the cars so that parishioners who are likely to leave Mass first can drive off without waiting for the car in front or behind — whose owners have lingered for coffee and doughnuts — to move first. Car pooling is encouraged and there are extra bicycle racks for those, like Father Kerns, who like to bike to church.

As faithful stewards of God’s creation, we Catholics must protect the most precious natural commodity: water. While the Willamette Valley is seemingly deluged with record rainfalls, households, businesses, churches tend to use little of this natural rain. Though St. Juan Diego does not have plans to reuse its storm water, it has added bioswales at the bottom of the site to capture runoff. There is a steep grade from the front of the property to the far end of the parking lot. Capturing the runoff will also alleviate groundwater problems for neighbors below, who have had problems in the past.

To reduce water usage, the grounds are landscaped with drought-resistant native plants that, once established, will require minimal irrigation; the bathrooms are equipped with dual-flush toilets.

During last year’s Easter season the St. Juan Diego Social Justice Committee led a parish-wide activity titled “Renew the Face of the Earth.” One-hundred and thirty-eight households signed up and participated in this six-week activity that used prayers, reflections, education and tips and tricks and suggestions to reduce our carbon footprint.

We pray that we will live up to the teaching of the Catholic Church and continue to take opportunities to reduce, reuse, and recycle knowing that we care for each other when we care for God’s creation.

The writer is a member of the St. Juan Diego Social Justice Committee.