‘Nature is the greatest sanctuary which God made’

Father Ruben Quinteros, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, says Mass for a small group of priests during a hike on Pinnacle Mountain in Perryville August 2022. (Courtesy Father Ruben Quinteros)
Father Ruben Quinteros, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, says Mass for a small group of priests during a hike on Pinnacle Mountain in Perryville August 2022. (Courtesy Father Ruben Quinteros)
Father Ruben Quinteros, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, sits on the side of a rock face on Flat-Side Pinnacle in Perryville August 2022. (Courtesy Father Ruben Quinteros)
Father Ruben Quinteros, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, sits on the side of a rock face on Flat-Side Pinnacle in Perryville August 2022. (Courtesy Father Ruben Quinteros)
Members of the Honey Belles beekeeping club at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock extract honey from the beehives in October 2023. (Maureen Stover)
Members of the Honey Belles beekeeping club at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock extract honey from the beehives in October 2023. (Maureen Stover)
Students at St. Joseph School in Paris work in the butterfly garden May 2024. (Courtesy Michelle O'Neal)
Students at St. Joseph School in Paris work in the butterfly garden May 2024. (Courtesy Michelle O'Neal)


When Pope Francis shared his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” nine years ago, the issue of creation care was elevated in the Church. 

“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another,” Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’.

Ever since, a week in May — this year is observed May 19-26 — has been recognized as Laudato Si’ Week, reminding the global Catholic community to protect the environment and be good stewards of the earth. 


Clergy outdoors

Many priests in the Diocese of Little Rock participate in outdoor activities to bolster their faith lives and build fraternity with one another. 

Father Phillip Reaves, director of the prison ministry, said spending time outdoors is proof of God’s existence and creative ability.

“My experience of the outdoors is one of the proofs that I give for the existence of God,” Father Reaves said. “The beauty and magnificence of the Rocky Mountains experienced on ski trips or hiking in the Bridger-Tetons cannot be a coincidence. I also find the peace and solitude of the outdoors as a spiritual experience.”

Father Ben Riley, pastor of Mary Mother of God Church in Harrison and St. Andrew Church in Yellville, can often be found climbing and backpacking.

“I have had the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors all over the country, but Arkansas is truly unique in its beauty and grandeur,” Father Riley said. “From Kyle's Landing to Hemmed-in-Hollow, Horseshoe Canyon and Lost Valley, the outdoor activities available in our state are almost endless. This is why it is so important we remain conservation-minded — so future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy God's creation.”

Father Riley said being a good steward of the earth does not mean controlling — it means caring. 

“In the garden, God gave Adam dominion over creation, but this does not mean ‘rule of,’ — it means ‘care for,’” Father Riley said. “We have a duty to maintain the natural resources that have been trusted to our care. Of course, I love the beauty and architecture of churches, but sometimes I need the silence and perspective the forest cathedral provides. 

“Conservation is not just an ethical ideal but truly a character of Christian witness. Pope Francis makes this very clear in his encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, which, if you haven’t had a chance to read, I highly recommend.”

Father Juan Manjarrez, pastor of St. Edward Church and the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Little Rock, also can often be found hiking. 

"I am blessed to live in a state that prides itself on being the Natural State,” Father Manjarrez said. “Every time I take the opportunity to explore nature in our beautiful state, I feel connected to God, who is beauty itself. However, I also become painfully aware that God created such a beautiful world, yet I barely take the time to enjoy it. I don’t want to feel regretful when I am in his presence, and he asks me how I have enjoyed the world he made for me."

Father Manjarrez often hikes with other priests, including Father Patrick Friend, chaplain at Catholic High School in Little Rock, and Father Ruben Quinteros, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock. 

Father Friend said his faith impacts his outdoor activities “more than the other way around.”

“My love for the outdoors is an extension of my faith,” Father Friend said. “I love creation because my God loves it and made it good. It is beautiful because he is beauty, good because He is goodness, and true because he is truth. In this way, the outdoors can serve as a kind of icon of heaven.”

Father Quinteros said hiking deepens his faith and relationship with God. 

“I read a long time ago an inspirational quote … ‘Hiking is the answer, who cares what the question is,’” Father Quinteros said. “Hiking offers a deeper connection with nature and ultimately with the creator. If I face stress and struggles, even in good times of happiness and peace, hiking is offering me a sacred space for prayer. It is why I love it so much.”

Father Quinteros said hiking, in particular, requires you to be in tune with your surroundings. 

“Hiking requires awareness of the surroundings and planning ahead to keep in mind the unexpected,” Father Quinteros said. “Pope Francis said, ‘a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and creator is not acceptable’ (Laudato Si’ paragraph #76). Nature is the greatest sanctuary which God himself made, from the most tiny and insignificance flower to the magnificent mountains — all invitations to get to know the Lord better.”


Teach your children well

Parochial schools across the state also participate in conservation activities, getting students invested in the environment and their faith. 

Steve Aday, assistant principal at Catholic High School in Little Rock, said the school has several clubs and activities to emphasize sustainability. 

“Catholic High has a recycling club and a beekeeping club,” Aday said. “The school also uses a recycling service that shreds all of our paper materials — there are different trash cans for that across the school in places like the faculty lounge.”

Michelle O’Neal, principal of St. Joseph School in Paris, said her school is working on several environmental efforts. 

“Our school has a butterfly garden with native plants through an Arkansas Game and Fish Wildlife Conservation grant,” O’Neal said. “We have received the grant for two years and have created our Outdoor Classroom with the money. We also teach birds, trees and animals of Arkansas.”

Nicole Schafer, principal of Immaculate Conception School in North Little Rock said that they also have a garden, as did Vivian Fox, principal of St. John School in Russellville. 

“We received a grant from the Arkansas Game and Fish for an outdoor garden,” Fox said, sharing that students were working on planting in the garden beds as she spoke to Arkansas Catholic. “Our Pre-K, first- and second-grade students are working together on the project. … One raised bed is a butterfly garden and the second bed will be a vegetable garden.”

Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock also has a beekeeping club, called Honey Belles. Maureen Stover, Latin teacher and international language chair, oversees the club. Tending to bees at school isn’t too out of the ordinary for her, given that at home, Stover cares for goats, chickens and geese. If you drive down Kavanaugh, you’re likely to see her donning protective gear and showing students around the beehives. 

The club was started in 2016, and students and teachers began gathering supplies and food to plan the space. 

“In 2019, we received our first colony of bees, registered the apiary, and started tending to our bees,” Stover said. “Since we received our first colony of bees, MSM students and I have enjoyed working with the bees, learning efficient and natural beekeeping techniques, as well as harvesting, processing, and selling the honey. We make products from beeswax, including lip balm and lotion bars. We are hoping to make wax wraps to sell, hoping to cut down on the use of plastic sandwich bags.”

Other parochial schools often take field trips to visit Mount’s beehives. 

“I’ve always loved animals and being outdoors,” Stover said. “… I wanted to do something that could help the bees succeed and, at the same time, take a small step toward eliminating food insecurity. I can see from my own gardening how much difference it makes to have bees present for the success of the plants. In some parts of the world, keeping bees is a way of supporting a family or even a community.  

“The Honey Belles have been able to contribute to the Heifer Project to help families start their own small businesses based on bees. The club also contributed to beekeepers in Australia when they lost so many hives in the fires (in 2019 and 2020).”

Stover said the fascinating nature of bees helped her faith grow.

“Keeping bees has also made me more aware of the timing of nature,” Stover said. “I now keep track of what’s blooming, whether there are enough resources for the bees–pollen, nectar, water, etc. I keep a closer eye on weather threats and pests that might harm the bees. Being responsible for managing hives brings me closer to nature, and closer to God. Educating young people about the bees is my way of passing on that love and awe for nature.”

Because it’s hard to control thousands of stinging insects, Stover has learned to let God take control.

“Occasionally, when the bees do something awesome, like start to swarm while I’m in the apiary, I realize that my ‘managing a hive’ is more like a polite suggestion for the bees,” Stover said. “At that moment, I have very little control, and sometimes I just have to accept what they are going to do. I guess that’s a reminder that sometimes I just need to get out of the way and let God do his work.”

The club has inspired students to grow in their faith, while being mindful of God’s hand in creation. 

Rachel Dam, a ninth grader and member of the beekeeping club, said beekeeping helped her value the Church and society more. 

“Going out in nature strengthens my appreciation for God's creation,” Dam said. “The bees are a prime example of the complex systems made by God. These insects not only work hard to build hives and make honey, but they also play a role in helping the plants around us flourish. They each have a job to do for the hive, just as we are called to do our part for the Church and society. As Catholics, we should look to the bees, fulfilling our duties while spreading goodness.”

“Activities like beekeeping and other activities involving nature strengthen my Catholic faith by showing me the beauty of God's creation,” said ninth-grader Reese Reynolds. “Whenever I am beekeeping, I get to see God's wonderful creations up close and I realize how grateful I am for the blessings God has given me.”

Valeria DeSantos, a 10th-grader, said beekeeping has taught her to be patient. 

“As a Catholic teen girl, I frequently forget to slow down and look at all the gifts God has given to us, which is why I am proud to be part of Honey Belles at Mount St. Mary’s Academy,” DeSantos said. “I am happy to help around the school and the bees. I'm also happy for the chance to be outside for an hour and 30 minutes. During this time, I get to see God's creation and each flower I pass reminds me that everything comes together to form life. It's perfectly done with everything, just the way it needs to be, and I remember how God provides for us.”

DeSantos said beekeeping has taught her that God does everything and creates everything for a reason. 

“God put everything on this earth for a reason, and that includes bees and every one of us,” DeSantos said. “Without bees, our world wouldn’t even be able to function. Each bee is important, just like us. No matter how small or big we are, God put us here for a reason. So that's why being outside strengthens my Catholic faith. It reminds me I have a reason to be here, a purpose, and I'm going to continue on the path God has made for me.”


Sustainable living

Many Catholic communities are also adopting environmentally friendly energy sources. It was when Pope Francis wrote a follow-up encyclical called Laudate Deum Oct. 4, 2023, on the eighth anniversary of Ladato Si’ that the monks at Subiaco Abbey decided to take a big step forward — using solar energy to be more sustainable

The abbey will install solar panels on six and a half acres northwest of the Subiaco Academy football field for maximum cost efficiency. The solar panels are projected to produce an annual energy output of 2.2 million kilowatt-hours, covering 95 percent of Subiaco’s electrical needs.

The array will consist of 2,784 panels, generating 450 watts per panel. The project is privately funded at $2.7 million. Over a 30-year period, the estimated electrical bill savings will reach $5,927,591, with a payback period of nearly 10 years.

Abbot Elijah Owens, OSB, said the decision is part of the sustainable nature of Benedictines. 

“Benedictines have been living sustainable stewardship for almost 1,500 years,” Abbot Owens said. “For us, this is not a political issue, but one where we care for creation and seek to pass it on to the generations yet to come.”

Abbot Owens emphasized the virtues shared by Pope Francis as the motivation for the move to solar. 

“Stewardship of creation is not a political matter but integral to who we are as Christians,” Abbot Owens said. “Pope Francis reminded us in Laudato Si' that, ‘Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.’ Our monastery and academy are doing precisely this through our stewardship and sustainability programs.”

Artie Berry, a parishioner in nearby St. Scholastica Church in New Blaine and an oblate with Subiaco Abbey, was part of Subiaco’s committee researching solar initiatives. He maintains his own residential solar array for electricity.

“I first have to admit that my decision to install solar panels in 2019 was largely an economic decision,” Berry said. “But care of God's creation — our earth — was also an important reason. Global warming, caused by burning fossil fuels to create electricity, was an important factor.”

As Berry became more aware of caring for God’s creation because of his sustainability efforts in installing solar panels, he began to adopt more sustainable practices as well. 

“In 2022, I bought a plug-in hybrid car,” Berry said. “This was much less an economic decision but rather an effort to move toward renewable energy and away from fuels that cause our planet to warm.”


Growing creation

While some Catholics prefer climbing mountains and installing solar panels, other Catholics prefer more traditional methods of caring for God’s creation. 

Father Mauricio Carrasco, director of spiritual formation at the House of Formation, grew up in a farming family and has a background in agriculture. In July 2023, Father Mauricio Carrasco borrowed a tractor from Louis Schmoll, a parishioner at Church of the Assumption in Atkins, to plant corn on the church’s property.

“We’re not just spirits, we’re embodied people,” Father Carrasco said. “And I think one of the ways that I have come to understand and articulate my desire to work with my hands and to work out in nature is to remember that we are embodied people, and just as our minds and souls need to be engaged, so does our body. … somehow, when we use our bodies, we are participating in the privilege that God gave us, which is to be co-creators.”

Father Carrasco points out in Genesis that God creates the light and day and night and sky and water — but God then lets the earth itself bring forth creatures according to their kinds. 

“He easily could have made everything automatic,” Father Carrasco said. “… But he gives us dominion because we get to be co-creators.”

Father Carrasco said when we work with our hands, we’re not only creating something, but we’re reaffirming that we’re made in the image and likeness of God. 

“There’s something about caring for the environment that not only helps the environment but also makes you grow into a better image of God,” Father Carrasco said. 

Father Carrasco spoke about farmers and agricultural communities that grow food. 

“Oftentimes, they’re very hospitable,” Father Carrasco said. “It’s funny how we use the phrase ‘down to earth.’ Somehow, the more connected you are to the earth, the better you are as a human being. … That powerful language says a lot.”

Father Norbert Rappold, pastor of St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home, can often be found tending to his garden. Father Rappold has tended to his garden for 45 years, and tended to the flower beds and gardens of others before that. There isn’t much Father Rappold doesn’t grow — passersby will find arugulas, kale, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, onions, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, celery, corn, okra, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, watermelon and a host of other fruits, vegetables and herbs. 

Father Rappold leaves most of what grows in the back of the church for parishioners to take as needed. He said gardening teaches patience and trust. 

“I think every priest should grow a garden because it teaches you that God’s in control and you’re not,” Father Rappold said. “That’s been the most valuable lesson.”

He said gardening also taught him humility. 

“The other valuable lesson is how to participate with God instead of trying to think somehow I am in charge and I can do it better than him,” Father Rappold said, explaining that his corn is often the plant God uses to teach him. “… I grew one crop and I was patting myself on the back because it really looked nice. … I said, ‘Oh, I'm going to get a bunch of corn.’ And then I came back one day after a storm blew through and it was all beaten down.”

It was when Father Rappold humbly told curious parishioners that his garden would do as well as God allowed that he noticed his crops doing especially well — sometimes even better than he’d imagined. 

“One year, my corn blew over in a storm. And I thought, ‘Dang it, there goes my corn.’ … But that corn stood up on its own. The stocks were curved, but it literally pulled itself back up. … But it taught me, all these years I’ve tried to put it up myself, and here I am thinking, if I just leave it alone, the good Lord will tell me how he does it,” Father Rappold said with a laugh.

Father Rappold has also learned to garden alongside God. 

“When I’m weeding, if I come across something I’m not sure about, I go around it,” Father Rappold said. “… God’s the one growing it. I’ve learned to participate with him.”

Father Rappold said it’s important to see creation and nature as a whole, as well as recognize each of the parts that make up creation. 

“People that like to camp … look at the panoramic view of creation and it heightens the spirit. It allows them to let the rest of the world go as they stand in awe of what God has done,” Father Rappold said. “… If you took a closer look, you’ll see there’s dead trees, there’s rocks, there’s weeds, there’s animals that will eat you. It’s kind of like life. If we’re up close and we’re just looking at a rock thinking about how horrible life is, we need to realize that … we’ve got blinders on. God is looking at salvation history, and weaving it in a very beautiful way that we’ll only get to see once we leave this world and meet him face to face. 

“Only then will we comprehend creation itself, which he shared with us. We don’t really say thank you. We don’t realize the gift we have in creation. … God takes care of it, but we can participate in much better ways.”

Katie Zakrzewski

Katie Zakrzewski joined Arkansas Catholic as associate editor in 2023 after working in local media and the environmental sector. A member of St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, she recently completed her master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School.

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