Trees Bring Hope to St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden

Octavio Duran Features

CAMDEN, N.J. —  In an effort to make the neighborhood of St. Anthony of Padua Church a better place to live, the staff of the New Jersey Tree Foundation (NJTF) and a large group of volunteers planted 53 trees on Saturday,, Sept. 16.

These trees were planted around the block that includes the church, the school, the friary, St. Francis house, and a few private homes.  “We were able to plant as many trees as we wanted, as long as it was within a reasonable distance between one another, and as long as someone committed for two years to take care of them,” said parishioner Luz Duran, who serves as liaison between the NJTF and the parish. Seven trees were planted on her property which is at one of the corners of the block.

The Urban Airshed Reforestation Program (UARP) is an air quality improvement program based on community tree planting. It is designed to mitigate air and water pollution in the ozone non-attainment area of South Jersey, including the city of Camden through the planting of thousands trees and the recruitment of numerous organizations as partners to support these greening efforts. To date, more than 3,600 volunteers have planted more than 2,000 trees of 60 varieties. This project links tree planting in an urban environment to better air and water quality by providing a safer, healthier environment for residents most affected by industrial pollutants.

According to Jud Weiksnar, pastor of St. Anthony, this project is beneficial because the trees add a Franciscan touch of ecology to this poor neighborhood, surrounded by vacant commercial buildings and other crumbling structures.

“Having 53 trees on our block, including 34 around the school and church property, is a blessing,” he said.  “The planning meeting was a great way for us to get to know some of our neighbors.”

Among the volunteers who made this project possible were members of the men’s and women’s hockey teams from Neumann College in Aston, Pa., and a group of youth from the intensive supervision program (ISP) who by court order must serve 18 hours of community service each month.

In addition, two novices, Dan Horan and one of the Canadian novices, as well as four volunteers from the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry in Camden, worked on the tree planting.

Early in the morning, before the hockey team arrived, the ISP volunteers began digging holes where the trees were to be planted. By the time the truck carrying the trees arrived, the holes were already dug and the excitement began.

Jane Kim, a staff member of the NJTF, instructed the volunteers on how to properly plant a tree (including information about the depth of the hole and how to prepare a tree before it went into the ground). Twenty-five minutes later, a beautiful Tatarian maple was standing tall in front of the church. For Kim, trees give a sense of hope of what people are capable of doing for both their neighborhoods and the environment. During the four hours of labor, the volunteers were back and forth around the block; some moved trees and others mulch. Other volunteers distributed bottles of water and, on one occasion, seven women were seen pushing a fairly large tree iinto a hole.

John C. Coughlin did not hesitate to get his hands dirty and, in one instance, while pushing a tree, he almost fell inside the hole with the tree.

Though it seemed as if Jud could not stop taking pictures, he took time to walk a dog. The day was fun for everyone involved. When the last tree was planted, participants rushed to enjoy meatball sandwiches in the basement of the church.  During lunch, Jud and John blessed the 53 trees that the New Jersey Tree Foundation donated to the church, while standing in a front-end loader.

Now, according to Jud, parishioners want to “adopt” the trees by naming them and agreeing to care for them.

“The tree in front of Francis House will be Clare’s Tree,” he said. “Our parish council president Grisel Irizarry wants to name one of the trees the Tree of Hope.”

“The trees will also be a blessing for our local ecosystem,” Jud added. “They will provide shade, dampen the noise on our busy street, and beautify our little corner of Camden.”