First livesimply Parish Award

18th September 2012 - by Ellen Teague

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On Sunday 16 September, St John Bosco Church in Woodley became the first parish in England and Wales to be awarded the livesimply parish award for its commitment to live more simply and sustainably and to stand in solidarity with the world’s poor.


Ellen Teague, of the Columban JPIC team, was one of the assessors for the award. She writes:

‘Live Simply so that others may simply live’. It’s a strong Christian message but you don’t often see it presented starkly in front of a congregation. Yet it was written large on the wall behind the main altar of St. John Bosco parish in Woodley when I visited mid-August. It gave a great impression to the two livesimply Award assessors, one of which was me.

The parish – sandwiched between Reading and Wokingham in Portsmouth Diocese – is hidden away in suburban streets, but it is a very significant parish, being the first in England and Wales to achieve the livesimply Award, a national prize for Catholic parishes putting their faith into action. It has around 400 parishioners, but the prime movers behind the award have been two in particular – Rita Belletty and Paul Draper of the parish livesimply group.

It was a sultry afternoon when they showed the assessors around the church and grounds, pointing out parish work towards the Award since their registration in January 2011. Applicants must undertake three substantial actions, covering each of the headings of ‘Living Simply’, ‘Living Sustainably’, and ‘Living in Solidarity with People in Poverty’. Then, at least six other actions. In addition, they must show that the programme is sustainable, with a ‘green team’, the settings of targets and good outreach to the whole congregation.

Well, for substantial action there was the installation of 16 solar panels on the church roof in June. The £7,500 project was funded entirely by the parish, and after the installation parish priest Fr Chris Whelan climbed onto the roof to bless them! “Our new panels will reduce electricity costs, paying for itself in ten years’, said Paul, “and it will also supply excess energy to the grid and so directly contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere”. According to recent statistics released by British Gas, churches in the UK could save as much as £34 million a year by switching to solar power. This would amount to an annual reduction in carbon emissions of up to 42,000 tonnes, or the same as that emitted during over 600 transatlantic flights.

The parish also installed a new energy-efficient boiler in June 2011and all the church lighting has been changed to low-energy light bulbs. They also consider reducing energy use, for example, in the winter, the smaller Lady Chapel is used for weekday masses and only this area is heated. As we left the church we noticed three boxes of food at the back, donated by parishioners for the Woodley Churches Together Food Bank which gives practical help for local people in need. We also noticed pictures on a stand of a Climate Rally in London, attended by the parish, which included Columbans Peter Hughes and Frank Nally.

After the tour, we sat down in the presbytery with Rita and Paul, along with Mary Johnston, who is the Traidcraft representative in the parish, and Liz Cramp of the parish Romania Link group. Margaret runs a Traidcraft stall in the parish porch after Saturday and Sunday masses each weekend. “They love fairly traded ginger biscuits” she told us, when asked about the most popular item. She reported that a team of people help with the stall and keep accounts, but most parishioners support the project and are made aware of where the goods come from. Any profits raised at the end of each financial year are sent to CAFOD. Liz explained that a group of parishioners visits Romania annually, supporting projects assisting abandoned children and families living in poverty. The parish raised £8,000 in 2011 towards this outreach with events ranging from selling goods at the Woodley Winter Extravaganza to an Open Garden at a parishioner’s home. A detailed annual report is given to the parish, with every receipt meticulously kept.

One enterprising parishioner, who is a member of a Spa Health Club, arranged for goods left long-term in their Lost Property to be put to good use. Towels were collected and washed by a team of parishioners and then distributed between a drop in centre for men and a women’s refuge, whose users often arrived with nothing. The refuge had previously only been able to lend the families towels, but were now able to give each family member a towel to take with them when they were rehoused. When the Spa changed its logo, the old robes and shoes were cleaned and recycled to two hospitals in Uganda.

So, as we ticked boxes on the livesimply assessment form and flicked through the portfolio of evidence of initiatives towards the award I felt the parish should be very proud of itself. There were receipts from Traidcraft, acknowledgements from government ministers of parish letters urging Climate Change action, posters explaining to the congregation the objectives of the livesimply group.` There was a letter from the St. John Bosco Prayer Group saying “we support livesimply and endorse it both by our prayers and individually”. The church flower arrangers presented a receipt for a compost bin, purchased for discarded church flowers and shrub cuttings, saying “we fully support work towards the livesimply award”. And there were photos – women serving up soup at a hunger lunch for Romania, walkers who undertook the annual livesimply Creation Walk in nearby woodlands during May, the St. John Bosco ‘litterpick’ team, the ‘elderly club’ knitting goods for charity stalls, the livesimply group with Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, lobbying him on Climate Change.

The livesimply group was originally the parish Climate Change group and advocacy on the issue has been a key element of their actions. There were photos of them at ‘The Wave’ in December 2010 where they travelled to London and participated in an ecumenical service and march in advance of the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. They reported that, “the service at Methodist Central Hall was truly inspiring and the hall was absolutely packed with people – a sign that our churches and we as Christians are truly engaged with the issue, something to be proud of and hopeful about!” Every CAFOD campaign has been supported in recent years, including the recent ‘Water’ campaign, and the group used CAFOD’s ‘Call of Creation’ reflection materials last Lent. The group is very appreciative of the support they have received from CAFOD’s campaign office, which worked in collaboration with the Eco-Congregation ecumenical initiative to develop this special new award for Catholic parishes. Incidentially, two other parishes in Clifton and Lancaster Dioceses have applied for awards and await assessment, and nine others have registered their involvement.

A pile of livesimply pledges from individuals at St.John Bosco included one from Fr Whelan. Of course the parish priest’s support of this initiative is crucial. He was in many of the photos, including several of the annual ‘Creation Mass’ where parishioners are encouraged to bring along flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables they have grown. Being St. John Bosco, last year’s gifts were then taken to the Reading drop-in centre for the homeless. It was fitting that the award was presented during the annual Creation Mass on 16 September by CAFOD’s Director, Chris Bain.

Across England and Wales, one more parish has been assessed, another two parishes are being assessed, and nine other parishes are working towards the award.
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