Cardinal Donald Wuerl on May 7 blessed the newly completed green infrastructure project at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast Washington, which he said “is part of our effort to keep God’s creation as beautiful as when He created it.”

The Archdiocese of Washington partnered with The Nature Conservancy, a national organization working on land and water conservation, to create the natural infrastructure that will reduce pollutants from water runoff in the cemetery.

The storm water retention garden, Cardinal Wuerl said, “would protect God’s magnificent creation … so that future generations can enjoy it.”

Mount Olivet’s new project replaces or retrofits impervious surfaces with water­-retaining green infrastructures such as grass, flowerbeds, shrubs and trees. An impervious surface is one through which rainfall or surface water cannot flow. Such surfaces include asphalt, concrete, buildings and other covered areas, patios, tennis courts, driveways, swimming pools and parking lots.

When storm water hits impervious surfaces, it collects pollutants such as oil, sediment, or trash before flowing into sewers and eventually waterways. The storm water flowing off Mount Olivet Cemetery drains directly into Hickey Run, one of the Anacostia River’s tributaries. The cemetery’s new water-retaining green infrastructure has already significantly reduced its impervious surface area, cemetery officials said.

Mark Tercek, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, praised the cemetery’s rain garden bioretention effort, saying “it will reduce storm water pollution and increase the quality of life for D.C. residents.”

“This (rain garden) stands to prevent billions of gallons of urban storm water from reaching the Anacostia River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. It is a big deal,” he added.

Tommy Wells, a former D.C. City Councilmember who is now director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, noted that the Anacostia River “is one of the 10 most environmentally compromised rivers in the United States.”

John Spalding, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, called the project one that would “improve our environmental footprint” as part of Catholic cemeteries “being fully committed to serving families” of those buried there.

Cardinal Wuerl said that it was appropriate that this unique rain garden should be installed at Mount Olivet because “our cemeteries serve a significant and real purpose.”

“This is sacred ground where we bury our dead,” he said, adding that the cemeteries are also maintained “for family members to come and visit, reflect and remember.”

Cheryl Tyiska, manager of Mount Olivet Cemetery, called the bioretention effort “a work that directly benefits people and nature.”

Tercek, who noted that he was raised Catholic, praised the Church “for its history of caring for people and the earth.” He also praised Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’.”

“The pope has pushed Catholics and others to remember their responsibility to care for the environment,” Tercek said. “We need to bring people together to get things done. It is what the pope has called us to do, and we are doing it here today.”

Cardinal Wuerl also referred to the papal document and noted that the Holy Father is calling everyone to have a renewed commitment to care for the environment.

“We are called not only to care for our common home, this beautiful creation, but we must sustain it and pass it on to future generations, the cardinal said.

Prior to blessing the storm water retention gardens, Cardinal Wuerl reminded those at the gathering that God is “the source and origin of every blessing and He has placed His children on the earth to be good stewards of these tremendous gifts … so that in all things we might honor the demands of charity.”

“Graciously hear our prayers that your blessing may come upon these storm water retention gardens, that they may glorify God by their beauty and enable your faithful people to be better stewards of your bounteous creation,” Cardinal Wuerl intoned as he blessed the gardens.

In addition to reducing rainwater runoff, the project is generating Stormwater Retention Credits (SRC), which allow private developers to meet a portion of their storm water retention requirements through projects that retain storm water elsewhere in the city. Washington, D.C., Wells said, “is the first place in America where this is being done.”

The cemetery’s bioretention project should also help lower operating costs.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority last November proposed a steep increase in the city’s Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC). CRIAC – popularly called a “rain tax” – is a fee tacked on to District water and sewer bills based on the area of impervious surface on a residential or non-residential property. Religious groups said that the increase would limit what social services those churches could offer to residents who are most in need in the District.

Mount Olivet Cemetery, which this year marks its 160th anniversary, will also be the site of two future collaborations between the archdiocese and The Nature Conservancy. More than 150 new trees are being planted at the cemetery and works are underway for a native pollinator garden that will provide habitat for wildlife and water filtration benefits.