Father Kevin Kennedy, pastor of St. Gabriel Church, references a display board showing parishioners the new rain garden's design. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Father Kevin Kennedy, pastor of St. Gabriel Church, references a display board showing parishioners the new rain garden's design. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

In a feast day message in the parish bulletin to the members of St. Gabriel Church in Washington, Father Kevin Kennedy, the pastor, noted, “The Archangel Gabriel is the messenger of God who first announced to St. Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel’s mission is to bring to all people the good news of God’s transforming presence in the world. Being members of St. Gabriel Parish, we have a special commission to do the same thing.”

And on the feast day of St. Gabriel on Sept. 30, the parish did that, first with a bilingual Mass celebrating the faith of that diverse community, and then with the blessing of a site outside the church that will become a rain garden in an effort to limit stormwater runoff that causes pollution in area waterways.

During the Mass, Father Kennedy encouraged people to stand on the rock of their faith, especially in challenging times, and come together as brothers and sisters to experience and share Christ’s love in their parish and community. The congregation included people of different races and backgrounds, longtime residents and recently arrived immigrants, senior citizens, young adults and families with children. As they prayed the Our Father in English and Spanish, they joined hands together.

Then after Communion, the pastor introduced local government and civic group representatives in attendance for the blessing of the rain garden site.

“We do have a common goal for a better city, society and neighborhood,” he said.

Moments later as he blessed the site, Father Kennedy prayed, “We are all part of the creation of God… Help us be good stewards of the creation God has given us.”

He noted that the downspouts from the church’s roof will be redirected onto the new rain garden, which will be installed this fall. A filtration system that includes rock, sand and pebbles will be built about three feet below the ground and will filter out toxins. The bioretention system will absorb and filtrate the water in the ground, allowing it to percolate and nourish the array of trees, bushes and blooming flowers that will be planted in the garden.

When rainwater hits impervious surfaces like roofs and parking lots, it collects pollutants such as oil, sediment or trash before flowing into sewers and eventually waterways. More than three billion gallons of stormwater runoff and sewage flow into D.C. local rivers and streams each year.

The project was funded by a grant from the RiverSmart program of D.C.’s Department of Energy and the Environment, which funds green infrastructure projects in an effort to reduce stormwater runoff that harms the District’s waterways.

The St. Gabriel’s rain garden will be “mutually beneficial for the environment and the church,” said Josh Clark of the Anacostia Watershed Society, which has a goal of making the Anacostia River swimmable and fishable by the year 2025.

Clark, a landscape architect and green infrastructure specialist, designed the rain garden. “This is probably my favorite project this year,” he said.

Noting the location beside the majestic stone church, he said, “We’re here at Grant Circle. Folks will see the garden.”

People will be able to walk along stepping stones into the garden, which will have a bench and is expected to include a statue of St. Gabriel. A canopy of serviceberry trees with white blooms will form the backdrop, along with inkberry holly shrubs, planted behind colorful native perennial flowers, including black-eyed Susans, blue flag irises and red cardinal flowers, most of which will bloom in the fall, around the time of the parish’s feast day.

Micah Johnston, wearing a green T-shirt as a member of St. Gabriel’s “Green Team” that planned the project, said the rain garden will be “an ongoing gift to the parish,” where teens can help tend the flowers as a service project, where parishioners can come there and pray, and where people in the neighborhood can find “a very welcoming space.”

Johnston, a 34-year-old native of Alabama who works for an NGO that promotes youth leadership in Africa, said he felt blessed “to be part of a parish with this history, with older people who’ve given their lives to the parish, and you’re looking to make a difference, and create an avenue for other people in the parish to make a difference.”

St. Gabriel Parish, founded in 1919, marks its centennial next year. The parish’s Green Team worked with the group Everybody Grows to establish a community garden near the convent this summer, where they have grown tomatoes and peppers used at parish events, with the goal of also providing produce for those in need.

“What else is better to bring us together than creation where we live?” Johnston asked. “…The power of this kind of work to unite all of us is unlimited.”

Another member of the St. Gabriel’s Green Team, Ashley Novak – a registered nurse from Michigan who works at a surgery center in Silver Spring – said, “It’s a really nice opportunity to get the church involved in green measures and also help protect the Anacostia River as best we can.”

In May, a rain garden to limit stormwater runoff pollution was dedicated at the historic Mount Olivet Cemetery, in a partnership between the Archdiocese of Washington and the Nature Conservancy.

Novak said the St. Gabriel’s efforts are in harmony with the message of Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”).

“It’s important for us to care for the environment as best we can, to preserve it for those around us and for future generations,” she said.

Avery Lamb, the director of faithful advocacy for Interfaith Power and Light, which works with area congregations on environmental issues, praised the St. Gabriel’s rain garden project, calling it “a beacon to its community.”

“Father Kennedy and the Green Team are using this space, this house of the Lord, to say to the community, ‘We care about God’s creation,’” he said. “…I hope that this can be a model for Catholic parishes and congregations of all faiths to live out the call to care for creation.”

At a parish feast day reception afterward, Father Kennedy donned a green clerical shirt with his Roman collar. The priest, a New Yorker who worked on Wall Street before entering the seminary and being ordained in 1995, noted the importance of water to life on Earth, and to the life of the Church.

“I’ve been in parts of the world where water is so scarce, and people have to work so hard to get water to survive,” he said, adding, “Water is a gift from God.” He noted that the water of Baptism is a fundamental symbol of Catholic sacramental life.

Praising his parishioners’ efforts to be better stewards of creation, Father Kennedy said, “It really speaks to how people want to make the world a better place.”

The parish’s Green Team worked with the group Everybody Grows to establish a community garden, where they have grown tomatoes and peppers used at parish events, with the goal of also providing produce for those in need. Flowering plants in the garden attract pollinating insects, such as the bee pictured above. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)