By Eli Pacheco

A key to following St. Francis’ legacy is preserving God’s creation. 

Following other southwestern U.S. parishes, San Solano Missions in Topawa, Arizona, is embarking on a sustainability project that will harness the sun's power to cut the cost of electricity, conserve energy and honor Mother Earth. 

Br. Bill Minkel, OFM, previously served for 10 years at San Solano Missions, cared for by friars from the Provinces of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Barbara. He discussed the potential of solar panels with the community for several years before being reassigned to the Midwest.

"As a guest on the reservation, it took years of developing relationships and the trust of the tribe," said Br. Bill, who is serving in Chicago but will soon move to San Antonio. "Finally, it seems to be happening. It has lots to do with care for creation, although it is a continual movement toward greater sustainability linked with a humbler lifestyle."

He had connections and set up the contract. San Solano’s current friars are following through. Thus, solar panels are coming to the desert. 

“We have tons of roof and tons of sun,” said Br. Peter Boegel, OFM. “We will be happy to be generating electricity.” 

Sun rays break through a line of dark purple clouds hovering over the desert. Mountains fade in and out of the haze on the horizon.

For the greater good 

The Diocese of Tucson encourages parishes and schools to consider solar power in response to the late Pope Benedict XVI’s summon for more robust environmental protection. 

Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’” also outlines the mission. 

“We are trying to be a ‘Laudato Si’ community, and it is a value we all share,” said Br. John Gibbons, OFM, pastor at San Solano Missions. “Before, we could not make it happen because we are so remote. It is about our energy use and living gently on the earth.” 

Current green initiatives at San Solano Missions include: 

  • Air-dried laundry 

  • Eco-friendly products 

  • Energy Star appliances 

  • LED lighting 

  • Low-flow toilets 

  • Recycling 

  • Reusing grey water (clean wastewater from washing machines) to water the garden 

San Solano has also taken food-waste reduction to admirable levels, repurposing it to feed animals on the reservation. 

Making sustainability affordable for parishes

A parish would have to produce electricity for seven to 10 years to balance installation costs, and nonprofits and parishes do not get federal tax credits as for-profit entities do. So, many parishes collaborate with solar panel installers to find investors for installation.  

The investor becomes the power company and charges the parish for electric use. For-profits can claim tax incentives and charge a lower rate, which is set for 20 years. The partner owns the system and bears the burden of maintenance. 

It is a good deal for the parish. And it connects the parish’s mission to St. Francis’s “Canticle of Creatures,” said Br. Peter. 

“We are brothers and sisters to the whole created world,” he said. “It is up to us to take care of it. Right now, the earth is in a rough shape. We must acknowledge the neglect and harm we have done and take better care of Mother Earth.” 

A small white mission-style church sits in the middle of the Arizona desert

All eyes on the solar panels 

When the panels go up, attention will be on San Solano Missions. Is it worth it? The parish influences the community. Questions will arise. 

Br. John said San Solano’s experience with solar energy can impact what the rest of the community does. 

“As friars, we interact with all kinds of people,” Br. John said. “Not only the poor, but the movers and shakers. We can connect with people. It is who we are as Franciscans. 

“We are in a small village of several hundred people,” he added. “We are on the map, and we do have visitors. We will have the first-hand experience and hope it will encourage others.” 

On San Solano’s grounds, the change is expected to make an impact. 

It is not unusual for temperatures to reach 120 degrees on the reservation. Friars’ bedrooms are air conditioned, and evaporative coolers cool office space. This takes lots of energy. To offer air conditioning in the church and parish hall would be ... cool. 

But the mission is to embrace our world, Br. Peter said. 

“Solar panels and windmills are beautiful, aesthetically, because of what they stand for,” he said. “They are not anything you will take a picture of to hang on the wall, but they are beautiful for what they stand for.” 

Photos for this article were provided by Br. Bradley Tuel, OFM