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’Tis the Gift to be Simple: On Earth Day, a Jesuit Environmentalist Looks Back

by Tracey Primrose

April 25, 2014 — Fr. Al Fritsch, S.J., remembers the lightbulb moment like it was yesterday. The year: 1970. The setting: a springtime rally on a leafy esplanade at the University of Texas at Austin to commemorate the nation’s first Earth Day. The action: a fellow activist claps wildly to condemn corporate polluters while stamping out his cigarette on the university’s dewy lawn. The reaction: Watching in disgust, Fr. Fritsch realizes that responsibility for environmental stewardship is not the exclusive domain of corporations or politicians. It is a sacred trust shared by all of us.

It’s been 44 years since the first Earth Day, and Fr. Fritsch is now 80. A chemist and a Jesuit priest, Fr. Fritsch’s environmental ethic was born many years ago on the farm where he grew up near Maysville, Ky., a bucolic place near the Ohio River with distant views of Appalachia. The second oldest of six children, Fr. Fritsch and his brothers and sisters were taught an early appreciation for the land. When they weren’t cultivating the farm’s crops, the Fritsch kids were building houses in the summer months. Seventy years later, Fr. Fritsch laughs as he recalls his father’s penchant for “keeping people busy all the time.”

Importantly, nothing ever left the farm as trash, and even glass would be crushed to make filler for concrete. In those years leading up to World War II, the family grew nearly all their own fruits and vegetables, and decades before most Americans knew what an environmentalist was, the Fritsch family was reducing, reusing and recycling.

At Xavier University in Cincinnati, Fr. Fritsch earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry and met the Jesuits for the first time. His time at Xavier would have a profound impact on the young farm boy, who decided in 1956 that God was calling him to the Society of Jesus. After years of Jesuit training and additional academic study, which included a 1964 doctorate in chemistry from Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., Fr. Fritsch was ordained in 1967.

Fr, Fritsch bless the animalsBy the late 1960s, he was actively working to protect the environment, first as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas and later as a staff member at Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law. Long before it was popular to consider the health and environmental impact of asbestos, tobacco, lead and mercury, a Jesuit chemist was an early foot soldier in a still ongoing campaign. With two colleagues, he co-founded the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an influential D.C.-based advocacy group, and for six and a half years, he testified before Congress, wrote prolifically and traveled the country talking about conservation.

Although his time in D.C. was exciting and productive, Fr. Fritsch’s eyes were opened to the excess of the capital city, and his 1976 book, “99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle,” became a guidebook for those seeking a more conscientious, less wasteful life. Fr. Fritsch wanted to put the book to the test so he headed to an impoverished, blighted section of America where people might actually heed a lesson in simplicity. In 1977, he came home to Appalachia.

He founded Appalachia Science in the Public Interest (ASPI) to promote sustainability and simple living, working with local collaborators, including the future senator from West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller. For 25 years, Fr. Fritsch traveled the country preaching the gospel of simple eating, simple living and even simple dying, while finding time to help build the nation’s first entirely solar house. Fr. Fritsch says that ASPI is supported“by the hands of the poor,” and that commitment gives him hope.

Now serving as pastor at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Ky., and parish priest at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna, Ky., Fr. Fritsch handed day-to-day operations of ASPI to a new director in 2002.

As he contemplates more than four decades since the nation’s first Earth Day, he considers the progress that’s been made in Appalachia to preserve the region’s natural resources with tougher laws governing air and water pollution, strip mining and forest protection. Despite the good news, the region is devastated by poverty and drugs. Fr. Fritsch says, “While the beauty of the area is being largely maintained, it’s the lack of equality that is my primary focus. We have some of the poorest counties in America, and we have a system that’s allowed that inequality to take place.”

After nearly 60 years as a Jesuit, Fr. Fritsch shows no signs of slowing down. He is working on a book, contributing to his Earth Healing website and planting a new memorial herb garden at the parish. He lives on just $3 to $4 a day – the same as an average food stamp recipient –and usually consumes less than that so he can donate money to help feed someone else. His current battle: the planned 1,700-mile Keystone XL Pipeline, which will bring 800,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil from Canada to refineries in the United States.

Living for nearly four decades in a place he loves — where “the bluegrass kisses the mountains”— Fr. Fritsch finds a “peace of soul” in his work. Although he acknowledges that building an environmental ethic has taken a lot longer than originally thought, his outlook remains upbeat. “If we have faith, we can do it. If we don’t have faith, it won’t work. It’s a call for faith more than anything else.” 

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