First Presbyterian Church in Oak Park Heights may not be the first church to hold a dedication ceremony for a parking lot, but it may have been the only one to feature a bagpipe player in its celebration. On a Friday afternoon in September, the kilted bagpiper led a group of parishioners and local community representatives down a porous paver walkway and past several new raingardens before stopping in front of a giant red ribbon stretched across one end of the parking lot. After a word of introduction from Rev. Zachary Wilson, the ribbon was cut with a flourish, and all gathered round clapped and cheered.
All Saints Lutheran in Cottage Grove held a similar event in 2009 to bless their newly built raingarden. In lieu of bagpipes, the entire congregation stood circle around the garden and offered up prayers of thanks. Afterwards, children played games on the church lawn and folks brought out food for a picnic.
Locally, more and more places of worship are using environmental stewardship projects as a way to bring members together, add beauty to their church grounds, and demonstrate caretaking for God’s creation. “When I first heard that the church was embarking on a parking lot project, I groaned,” jokes Rev. Wilson. “But it actually turned out to be a successful and very fun project.” The church got a helping hand from member Brett Emmons, who is an engineer with Emmons and Olivier Resources (EOR). With a design from EOR, they were able to go beyond merely replacing old asphalt and instead incorporate porous pavers and raingardens to stop rain runoff from pooling in the parking lot and flowing into the street and a nearby apartment complex. The parking lot is beautiful, functional, and helps to keep more than 2000 pounds of algae from growing in the St. Croix River each year.
Down in Cottage Grove, Pastor Jules Erickson learned about raingardens while participating in a community focus group. With a grant from the South Washington Watershed District and a design from the Washington Conservation District, the church was able to build a raingarden along the edge of their parking lot that captures and infiltrates 40% of the stormater runoff from the building, parking lot and grounds. The garden brings beauty to the church property while also protecting the nearby Mississippi River from pollution. It also energized the congregation to pursue other projects on their grounds, including a labyrinth and vegetable gardens.
A new raingarden at the entrance to St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi was organized by youth member Gina Pirozzoli as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award. Gina secured grant funding from the Rice Creek Watershed District for the project, worked with the Washington Conservation District to finalize the design, and coordinated church volunteers to plant the garden over the course of two weekends. The garden prevents runoff from the church grounds from polluting White Bear Lake, only two blocks away.
For many congregations, installing a raingarden or porous parking lot on their property is only the first step in demonstrating environmental stewardship. White Bear Lake Unitarian in Mahtomedi, one of the first churches in the area to embark on such a project, has since used their water-friendly parking lot as a teaching tool. They’ve been featured on local tours and hosted educational presentations for the community as well. After the environmental stewardship committee at St. Andrews Lutheran in Mahtomedi installed a raingarden to protect a nearby wetland, they then organized a series of workshops for church members and neighbors to learn about keeping water clean with raingardens and shoreline plantings. Other churches to follow suit with raingardens on their grounds include Hosanna Lutheran in Forest Lake and Trinity Presbyterian in Woodbury.
Many churches believe that caring for creation is part of their obligation, and planting a raingarden is one way to do this in a visible and meaningful manner. The planning process, as well as the day of planting, offer opportunities for fellowship and are often a way to bring together younger and older generations in the congregation. Once planted, these pollution-preventing gardens not only beautify church grounds, but also get noticed by neighbors in the community. Best of all, cost-share grants from local Watershed Districts and design assistance from the Washington Conservation District make these types of projects practical and affordable.