By Eileen Connelly, OSU 

When people think of New York City, they imagine skyscrapers and concrete and sidewalks crowded with people. 

In the future, a group of parishioners at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi hopes that people will think of trees, too. 

New York City relies on trees to help fight extreme heat and flooding and reduce air pollution. The city is pushing to grow its tree canopy so that 30% of the city is covered by 2035. 

There’s just one problem: the city lacks the funding to care for all the trees it wants to plant. It relies on volunteers to help fill the gaps. 

Enter the new Laudato Si’ Circle at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Midtown Manhattan. The group invited people to learn about the benefits of trees and how to care for the trees in their neighborhood at its Earth Day and Arbor Day gathering on April 27, Let it Begin with Trees. 

Caring for creation in the concrete jungle

Beth Dzuricky, Laudato Si’ animator at the parish, started the Circle in October 2023 with encouragement from Joseph Nuzzi, director of evangelization, and the friars who staff the faith community. When she learned that member Melissa Brey had extensive experience with trees – including a degree in arboriculture – drawing on her expertise seemed the obvious thing to do.  

“In our mission statement, we commit to the idea of taking small actions that have a ripple effect,” she explained. “From a small group taking care of trees right at your church, it can spread from there, and people can take care of trees where they live or work.”  

The area around the parish is very congested, as is much of New York City, and is a high tourist area near Macy’s, Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. When the Laudato Si’ Circle learned another community group was already taking care of the trees in the block where the church is located, they moved their efforts a few blocks away.  

“You can really see a difference in the trees that are being cared for and those that aren’t,” Beth said.  

Let it Begin with Trees began indoors with a brief introduction to the Laudato Si’ Circle. Then Melissa presented the benefits of having trees, tree facts and street tree clean up. She emphasized that many New Yorkers don’t know that the NYC Parks Department encourages residents to care for trees through their Super Stewards program.  

“NYC doesn’t really have the manpower or funding to care for city trees, so they rely on volunteers,” said Melissa, who has worked with several tree companies and non-profit environmental groups and operates an ecommerce business that supports reforestation and tree conversation efforts.  

“If we want our trees to survive, we have to take it upon ourselves to ensure that happens,” she added. “If we want the trees to live long, healthy lives, the soil needs to be aerated and mulched and trees need to be pruned. We need our trees for the fresh air and health benefits and to beautify our neighborhoods.”  

A group of smiling people wearing gardening gloves and holding gardening tools stand before the doors of a church.

The group that participated in “Let in Begin with Trees” poses for a photo.  

Ongoing education about the environment

After Melissa’s talk, the crew hit the streets in teams, equipped with work gloves, shovels, information about specific types of trees and their care, and other essential items to get hands-on experience.  

“Our hope was to then send people off more aware of trees and to adopt one themselves,” Beth said. "I always think of St. Francis and our relationship with creation. We can all get out and beautify something, take ownership and care for the creation around us. We can be in communion with creation the way St. Francis was.”  

Melissa still recalls a small voice from God that told her to “protect his trees.”  

“I feel that trees have a very deep, deep connection to people,” she said. “I’ve seen the little kid in people come out when they talk about what trees mean to them. I just feel that trees are very, very important to God.”  

“Let it Begin with Trees is one of the first steps we are taking to improve the air in this great city of New York and helping with correcting global warming,” noted Br. Joseph Juracek, OFM, pastor of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. “We have experts coming to look through the church to see if there are any ways we can improve our use of electricity and our natural resources. Our Franciscan values include taking care of the world our God has given to us.” 

In the meantime, the Laudato Si’ Circle is educating parishioners by sharing simple ways they can use less energy and conserve natural resources in the bulletin. The group has also viewed “The Letter: A Message for Our Earth,” a 2022 documentary film that tells the story of the “Laudato Si’’” encyclical, and has read the papal document together. 

All are welcome to join the Laudato Si’ Circle. For more information, email