Student Essay Winners
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Referencing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ in which he calls on all people to respect the earth and stop exploiting it, we asked students to explain why it is so important to heed the pope’s call and to give at least two examples of what they or others are doing to care for the earth. We received 7,261 essays from students competing in two divisions (grades 6–8 and grades 9–12). “We were truly inspired by the thousands of students—and their teachers—from all over the United States who expressed their understanding of the need to personally take to heart the message of Pope Francis to care for our common home,” says Maryknoll Sister Mary Ellen Manz, who coordinated the judging. Following are the winning essays.


DIVISION I (Grades 6–8)
First-Place Winner: Grace Smith

Respecting Earth, Through Myself and My Government

Taking care of our common home is an idea that, for our world today, is no longer an issue of tomorrow but an issue of today. It is such an important idea because humans are the reason the environment is in a decline in the first place, so it is our responsibility to fix what we started. Pope Francis thinks that taking care of our common home should be a corporal work of mercy; Mother Teresa wanted us to stop wasting precious environmental goods. So how, exactly, are we supposed to help the environment? If one wants to stop contributing to the bad activities that will lead to earth becoming a gray wasteland, simple steps can be done to do so. I personally try to use less power at school and at home, and I write letters to my state politicians to ask them to vote “yes” on bills in congress that cut environmental strain. Using less energy and urging politicians to make Delaware more eco-friendly are simple ways that I treat the environment better and respect Earth, our common home.

Decreasing the amount of energy that I use and encouraging my friends and family to do the same is a way that I can directly affect the amount of fossil fuels burned for energy.

Wherever we go, my friends and I turn off unused lights and only use the amount of water that is necessary. These are particularly easy ways to help the environment because they take no time out of the day, require little to no effort, and are easy habits to get into and spread to other people.

Whenever citizens feel that an issue their local politicians are voting on pertains to them personally, they can mail a letter to the politicians to ask them to consider their circumstances and why they want the politicians to vote a certain way. An issue that pertains to me personally is conservation of the earth. While singular people who use less energy are contributing to a greener world, if companies continue to pump out dangerous chemicals into the air and water, nothing can be done to stop the environment’s decline. So whenever an environmental vote comes up, I mail a letter to my local representatives to remind them that voting to put checks on big manufacturing businesses is one of the most important things for preserving the earth and its resources. Even though I can’t vote yet, I can still make a difference in government through my politicians.

Maryknoll Magazine Essay Contest winners.

Maryknollers Sister Mary Reese and Brother John Blazo congratulate Grace Smith. (L. Nordmeyer/U.S.)

Everyone who is able must put in an effort to save our earth, before it is too late. With every voice and outlet available, citizens of every country need to work against the earth’s deterioration. If we all work together, as a whole world, we can make the earth beautiful, green and safe for all the generations after us. We have to be aware of the life or death situation of pollution and other ecological burdens; we have to be aware that our lives are dependent on the earth’s life, and if we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. Pope Francis understands this better than any other pope before him. He knows that God wants us to protect the beautiful world he gave us. God wants us to protect our common home, with every way we can.

Grace Smith, an eighth-grader at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., wins the $1,000 Bishop Francis X. Ford Award, named for the Maryknoll priest who was in the first group of Maryknoll missioners to China and died in a prison there in 1952


DIVISION II (Grades 9–12)
First-Place Winner: Meenu Johnkutty

Saving Our Earth

I am running on the back trails of the small city of Somers, New York, crushing decaying vibrant orange, red and yellow leaves underneath my feet. The streams alongside the trail gurgle as small fish scurry away at the sound of my feet pounding on the dirt. The air is crisp and fresh, and I am in awe of this remarkable splendor, the work of an intelligent Creator. But, the scene changes rapidly as I board the train that will bring me back home. The train cuts through paths made in the woods, where soda cans and cigarette boxes are carelessly strewn on the tracks and the streams are tinted brown with waste and carry plastic bottles instead of live fish. My eyes, which were once overwhelmed by the beauty of a New York autumn, are now saddened at our failed responsibility as a human race to take care of our spinning blue and green planet.

Though many might not realize it, our world is slowly slipping away from our fingers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, since the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels have increased by 30 percent, methane concentrations have doubled, and nitrous oxide levels have gone up 15 percent. When greenhouse gases accumulate in extraordinary levels, the amount of heat trapped in our atmosphere increases as well. This warming of the planet, termed global warming, has disastrous effects, ranging from the melting of polar ice caps to the extinction of many wildlife species. Our responsibility for this global issue, as well as our duty to fix it, is immense. Thus, the need to heed Pope Francis’ call to “protect our common home” must not be taken lightly, or we run the risk of losing our planet forever.

Our only solution to this pressing issue is collective global action. Anaerobic digestion (biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen) is one solution that has been gaining popularity all over the world. Personally, I became passionate about global warming as a freshman in high school when I researched and wrote a winning essay about the benefits of implementing biodigesters in rural communities. During a visit to my parents’ village in India, I was shocked to see mounds of trash burning on the sides of the dirt roads. However, if biodigesters were used in these communities, this burning trash could be used to produce biogas. The benefits of biogas are extraordinary, ranging from home heating to developing rural communities. Anaerobic digestion has already coined many successes in China and western European countries. Even in the United States, the students at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh piloted an anaerobic digestion program that produced enough biogas to power up to 10 percent of the 13,500-student institution! Thus, with the implementation of anaerobic digestion, our landfills, rife with biodegradable material, can be siphoned into biogas production that can power many appliances in the future.

First-place essay contest winner Meenu Johnkutty of Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers, N.Y., is flanked by (l. to r.) principal Father Mark Vaillancourt, dad Johnkutty Geevarghese, mom Sheba and Maryknoll Father Robert Jalbert. (J. Bergmeier/U.S.)

Along with supporting a future run with renewable energy sources like the sun, water and wind, we must also protest projects within the United States that threaten our future as a clean energy superpower. The Dakota Access Pipeline is one such project that threatens this future. This pipeline would transport over 470,000 barrels of crude oil from Canada to the United States, thus delaying the transition from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy. Protesters have been protesting this pipeline since October 2014. Thus, the time to switch to alternative forms of energy, which will stop our dependence on a finite fossil fuel supply, is now. We must protest and join in the fight against greedy corporations that do not weigh environmental risks as heavily.

As a teenager passionate about global warming and climate change, I want to see a future where my generation and future generations will not have to pay for the damage caused by greed and self-driven interests. What good is a world that has profited from big oil companies when the very world we are standing on will no longer be the planet earth that we know, the mother earth that has held us and nourished us? What will we say to our grandchildren who will look into our eyes and ask, “Why didn’t you stop this?” By heeding the pope’s call and taking action within our communities, we can and must slow down climate change before it is too late.

Meenu Johnkutty, a 12th-grader at Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers, N.Y., wins the $1,000 Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, named for the missioner who died on a forced march in Korea in 1950.


Essays of all 2016 winners will be published on For future news on the Maryknoll Student Essay Contest, stay tuned to



Ellie Kooney, Grade 8
St. Gerard School
Lansing, Mich.
Ellie shares “simple ways to help protect our earth” that her family uses, including recycling, composting, using LED lighting and driving hybrid cars. “Be kind to our earth,” she advises, “because it is an amazing gift and we need to save it before it is all gone.”

Katie Hess, Grade 12
Bethlehem Catholic HS
Bethlehem, Pa.
Finding relief from anxiety through nature has led Katie to work to preserve the environment and encourage others to do so. “I would never have imagined there being a useful purpose to my suffering,” she writes, “yet here I am, striving to make a difference because of it.”



Tobin Doherty, Grade 8
Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic School
Vienna, Va.
Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, says Tobin, has shown him he can do something about ecological problems like water pollution. Raising money for clean water in poor African countries is just one action he has taken. “We need to do something now, no matter how small,” Tobin says.

Joseph D’Agostino, Grade 9
St. Thomas Academy
Mendota Heights, Minn.
Describing a composting project he began, Joseph praises his teacher for inspiring him. “Not only did he provide evidence of how humanity is negatively impacting our climate,” Joseph says. “He gave my class the opportunity to do something about it.” Joseph hopes to assist his teacher.

Featured Image: On Ash Wednesday, Meenu Johnkutty accepts award from Maryknoll Father Robert Jalbert. (J. Bergmeier)


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