Members of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Detroit’s Eastern Market strolled outside in traditional red attire last week to view a rain garden filled with native plant species in bloom in the parking lot of their church. The gathering, which coincided with the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus celebration, honored a green infrastructure installation designed to reduce and treat stormwater runoff for more than an acre of impervious surface on the church’s property.
The celebration had been put on hold for nearly two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project began construction in 2017 and concluded in 2019.
This rain garden was a collaborative effort between Sacred Heart Church, the City of Detroit, and The Nature Conservancy, which coordinated the project with grant funding from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. According to Patrick Doran, TNC’s associate state director for Michigan, the project aimed to address two issues; flooding and the drainage charge that all water customers, including churches, pay the city to fund its stormwater management programs.
The drainage charge, based on the amount of impervious surface on a customer’s property, was instituted by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department in 2017. Properties with large structures and parking lots can incur several hundred to thousands of dollars in charges each month. Installing a green stormwater infrastructure system can help offset those fees with credit for capturing water runoff with rain gardens, cisterns, or bioswales. Because of the project, Sacred Heart Church is now receiving a 49% green credit on its monthly drainage charge.
The pilot project at Sacred Heart Church is one of the largest faith-based, green stormwater infrastructure projects in the city of Detroit. It will serve as a model for others, according to Doran.
Candace Calloway, a healthy cities program associate for TNC in Detroit, cut the ribbon.
“On an annual basis, the project at Sacred Heart Church is estimated to keep a whopping 1.5 million gallons of stormwater out of the sewer system,” Calloway told Planet Detroit.
Cuts in areas of the concrete allow the water to funnel into the rain garden, which is planted with species native to Michigan that absorb water while also attracting pollinators. Overflow systems are included so that the rain gardens don’t flood. During the 2021 floods in Detroit, several staff members from TNC said that the church parking lot and surrounding structures did not flood as they had in previous years.
Congregant Alexander Taylor is leading a new garden club at Sacred Heart Church that will take over maintenance of the rain gardens from TNC staff. Club members received eight months of specialized training on caring for native plants and rain gardens.
Moving forward, Sacred Heart Church will take on responsibility for funding future maintenance of the project. Taylor explained that “finding different ways to fund the various things needed for the parking lot like mulching and different kinds of maintenance will need more than volunteering.”
Calloway noted that as the plants become more well established, less weeding and maintenance will be required. But there will still be a need for stewardship beyond what the church members alone can provide.
Taylor also shared that he saw something in the parking lot of the church that he had not seen in years: more than ten baby praying mantises that looked like little twigs on the rocks near the rain garden. “I have seen dragonflies, yellow birds, and a praying mantis,” Taylor said.
TNC’s former Detroit Healthy Cities Program Director Valerie Strassberg reflected that this weekend was the one-year anniversary of the floods that affected thousands of people living in Detroit and the surrounding areas of Detroit. She said the project is “a reflection of what is possible on so many levels,” noting that “this system was able to handle the historic rainfall last year because the parking lot did not flood” thanks to the bioswales and domed risers installed with the rain garden plants.
Father Norman P. Thomas, who is celebrating his 67th year as an ordained priest, received thunderous applause from the audience when he turned to James Nicholson, the chair of The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, and suggested Taylor and a few other congregants should join the TNC board because “it would bring a little color to the board.” The majority of the Michigan TNC board are white, while Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregants are mostly people of color.
In reference to creating this garden space at the church, Father Thomas said that “it is great to be a co-creator with God.”