For Elyse Caiazzo, a 21-year-old college senior from Scarborough, studying environmental science and having faith in a higher power are not mutually exclusive.

Caiazzo is the student ambassador for the new Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation at Saint Joseph’s College, a $4 million program recently announced by the Catholic liberal arts school in Standish. The institute is a collection of initiatives designed to support sustainable agriculture and Maine’s blossoming food and beverage industry. It includes a new food manufacturing incubator; a food venture center that will help food entrepreneurs scale up and get their products to market; a hydroponic farm; a traditional farm; agritourism and workforce training through new courses and certificate programs.

This is a lot for a small Maine college with just 1,000 students to take on. But for Caiazzo, it’s just the next step in the school’s marriage of sustainability with its spiritual and social justice missions. And she wants to be a part of it, even though she’ll be graduating next spring, just as the programs begin. It fits right in with the reason she came to the college in the first place.

“Spiritually, we are called to be stewards of the Earth, which is something that Christians in general see as ‘This a present from God, and you need to take care of it,’ ” Caiazzo said. “And I thought ‘Well, what better way to be spiritually invested in my major but also create change through political, environmental and spiritual action?’ ”

Eyse Caiazzo, a senior at Saint Joseph’s College, harvests cauliflower from the school’s farm, Pearson’s Town Farm. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Saint Joseph’s has been slowly expanding its programs in these areas for years and considers them core values. All students are required to take a course called Ecology and the Environmental Challenge. The school does not have a major in sustainability, but students can minor in it, choosing from among 82 undergraduate and nine graduate courses.

As at many colleges today, the interest takes root in more practical ways as well, such as the college’s recycling program and its switch to more energy-efficient lighting.

“As opposed to other institutions, it feels to us that sustainability of the planet – and that includes people – is written into what we have all signed onto” at the college, said Kimberly Post, director of community-based learning, who created a scholars program for students interested in sustainability and helps run the school’s annual sustainability festivals.

Saint Joseph’s College is one of many schools affiliated with the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, according to Sister Michele Aronica, chair of the sociology department. The Sisters have developed what they call “five critical concerns” as a community, the first being Earth (followed by immigration, nonviolence, racism and women). As part of its mission to care for the Earth, the Sisters have advocated against fracking and in favor of national and international agreements to reduce the impact of climate change. They see these issues as social justice issues, Aronica said.

Elyse Caiazzo, a senior at Saint Joseph’s College, harvests cauliflower from the school’s farm, Pearson’s Town Farm. The school has introduced a new sustainability program. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“We believe that we all need to work for sustainability and to support movements and legislation that will support peoples’ fundamental right to water and address climate change,” she said. “It calls us to look at our own behaviors and how we are complicit in doing things that are antithetical to Earth, and to adopt principles for sustainability.”

Greg Teegarden, chair of the Sciences Department and among the professors who teaches Ecology and the Environmental Challenge, says the new Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation is part of a natural progression of Saint Joseph’s sustainability efforts. The required environmental course, he said, began around the time he came to the college in 2002. It was one of the school’s first steps toward making “a more overt effort to introduce sustainability into everything we do.”

Teegarden notes that students can’t be forced to share the school’s values regarding stewardship of the Earth, but professors can responsibly point out what they are and why they are considered important.

MaryClaire Attisano, a sophomore at Saint Joseph’s College, harvests Marketmore 76 cucumbers from the school’s farm, Pearson’s Town Farm. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“We say here that it’s an education in a values-centered environment,” he said, “and so we want to make sure that students come away with a sense there are certain values we hold dear, and that we feel are essential components of a well-educated and responsible citizen of the community, of the country, of the world.”

Students usually take the class in their junior year. Teegarden always tells them the literal translation of ecology, from its Greek roots, is “the study of the home.”

“I always make the point that another word that has the ‘eco’ root is the economy, which is the management of the home,” Teegarden said. “Whether we want to manage the world’s ecosystems, we are in fact doing it. We are already having an effect on them, and we can manage such that they go well or we can manage them poorly. If we’re going to be managing systems, in order to do it well we need to understand how they work.”

So students learn about how the Earth’s systems work, then they talk about the challenges, such as pollution, changes in the atmosphere and ocean waters that cause climate change, and degradation and overexploitation of natural resources. Finally, they learn about potential solutions.

Teegarden talks about Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and climate change in his class, but students don’t have to be Catholic – or embrace any kind of faith – to participate in the classroom discussion. (Teegarden says he has had atheists in his classes.) The professor tries to use the encyclical in the appropriate context, as a way to illustrate, for example, that Catholics do not keep science at arm’s length in the debate over topics like evolution.

Alyssa Dolan, assistant farm manager at Pearson’s Town Farm, stacks freshly harvested broccoli. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“The Catholic Church is very open to the fruits of scientific efforts,” Teegarden said. “It’s nice in a way, because we are free to discuss religion in a scientific context and to use that to reassure people that they need not fear what the scientists have to say.”

The course also gives students hands-on experience at the school’s Pearson’s Town Farm, where they learn about responsible agricultural practices.

Fewer than half of the faculty, staff and students at Saint Joseph’s are Catholic, Post notes, “but everybody who is here does embrace the mission of the college, which includes advocating for justice and peace and recognition of each person’s responsibility for the welfare of humankind and the environment.”

She said the school tends to attract students who are interested in the environment and social justice.

“It tends to be a part of who they are,” she said. “They have a history of community service already. They have a history of helping others and doing social justice work, and I think that sustainability shares the same thing – students are just more inclined to be passionate about that kind of work.”

Elyse Caiazzo’s story is typical. She grew up in a family where she was expected to play outside until dinnertime. Her family took camping and hiking vacations. In high school, she took an advanced placement course in environmental science, where she learned about the ozone layer, global warming and organic agricultural practices, and it stirred her interest. She considered a future as an environmental lawyer.

Domestic turkeys wander freely at Saint Joseph’s College’s farm. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

After graduating from Cheverus High School in Portland, Caiazzo spent her first semester of college at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, studying political science. She transferred in the spring to Saint Joseph’s, realizing that she had “a huge calling” to study the environment. She’s now a double major in environmental science and political science.

In choosing Saint Joseph’s, she said, she embraced a place that would encourage her to grow in her spirituality, but she was also impressed with the required ecology course.

She immediately jumped into working at Pearson Farm, which she thought was “so cool” and convinced her she’d like to be a farmer someday. It felt, she said, “like a spiritual calling.” Her days on the farm made her consider the similarities between laborers such as farmers and fishermen and the laborers she’s read about in the Bible – including Peter, the fisherman who became an apostle and one of the early leaders of the Catholic church – who are “the tenders of this Earth.”

“Usually these people are so connected with God because they are so connected with God’s creation,” Caiazzo said.

Caiazzo is still considering studying environmental law, but has decided to study agricultural policy at graduate school first.

“The No. 1 way to change the environment, or change anything, is to educate people,” Caiazzo said, “and Saint Joseph’s is making that step to educate their community, to say ‘You are able to make a change, you are able to face huge challenges.’ ”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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