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Renewing the Face of the Earth: Jesuit Al Fritsch

By Carol Ann Morrow

He hitched his future to the sun, because he loves the earth. This Jesuit priest preaches and lives empowerment.


Evolution of a Strategy
Hitch Your Future to the Sun
Fine Flora and Fauna
Encouraging Ginseng Production
Science and History Converge
Educating in Print and Video
Partnerships for Health and Harmony

Renewing the Face of the Earth: Jesuit Al Fritsch

Photo by
Kevin Millham

Appalachia: The region has a history and a reputation—much of it shaped by outsiders. Rethinking, restoring and respecting both history and resources are the three R’s of the life work of Father Al Fritsch, Ph.D. From a simple green house in Kentucky, the Jesuit priest directs Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest (ASPI).

Father Al puts on no more airs than his central headquarters does. From this modest house with a big purpose, the 69-year-old scientist in a plaid shirt and jeans joins a staff of 12 (most part-time) in making daily connections between his regional neighbors, his knowledge and his faith. Connecting any two of those counts as success. Father Al can count 25 years of successes.

Last fall, St. Anthony Messenger turned off one of the nation’s busiest highways to consider a road less traveled. Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, isn’t far from the freeway, really, though the traffic does taper off quite a bit. While Interstate 75 whisks lots of travelers past some of the nation’s richest environmental treasures, Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest has settled in—to assist in environmental and economic preservation, recovery and renewal.

From the Mt. Vernon headquarters, at the Livingston, Kentucky, demonstration site—and on farms, in forests, gardens and homes—good and simple progress in solving Appalachia’s environmental challenges has been made.

“What we bring is compassion to everyone,” says Father Fritsch. “We also bring an awareness that the world is bigger than this place. That’s what catholic means.” This worldview has taken ASPI staff to Haiti, Peru and the Dominican Republic, where harnessing the sun’s energy has enriched lives. The Central Appalachian region, the bioregion where ASPI is based, includes eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, western Virginia and western North Carolina.

To Al Fritsch, demonstration doesn’t imply civil protest but rather living in healthy ways that can be imitated by the average citizen—Appalachian or international. Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest demonstrates every day the value of solar energy, the fruitfulness of the land and the possibilities of connecting technology and science in ways that serve Appalachia’s residents. When they harness the power and knowledge ASPI makes available, the whole earth is well served.

Father Al has written on the theology of the earth and the healing of the earth. He finds his own personal authority to witness in “having witnessed wounded creatures in a wounded environment.” He says tillers of the earth are “few in words, mighty in deeds, patient in waiting.” He has tilled for 25 years and more, and couches his conversation in measurable changes and ongoing advocacy.

Evolution of a Strategy

Cisterns, composting toilets and solar energy are hardly the stuff of poetry—or literary prose. But their everyday usefulness makes them integral to ASPI’s mission. Good management of water, waste and energy at ASPI sites—and the know-how to “do it yourself”—is what Father Al’s brainchild provides in plenty.

The Fritsch family has its roots in Maysville, Kentucky. Al was born on a farm and earned his doctorate in chemistry. Then he studied theology—during the troubling times of Vietnam, which also saw the birth of the environmental movement. He belongs to the Chicago province of the Society of Jesus, which encompasses a wide swath of Appalachia.

As a Jesuit, he became an environmental consultant at Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, D.C., and felt inspired to begin a parallel center for the study of responsive science.

Father Al helped to found the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., in 1971. While CSPI now focuses on food and nutrition issues, it addressed a wider range of environmental causes at its inception.

Father Al concerned himself with energy issues, especially nonrenewable energy sources such as coal. He soon saw the irony of conducting his studies in, as he observes, “one of the richest areas in the United States.” He was far from any strip mines and equally distant from the daily challenges of energy production and consumption.

Why not, he thought, tackle practical, renewable-energy projects in a place where people have to work hard to keep their houses warm in winter? Rockcastle County, Kentucky, became home to ASPI on April 17, 1977.

It is one of the most accessible places in Appalachia, and within one day’s drive of half the United States’ population. This makes it a good hub for demonstrating sustainability, which is defined as self-sufficient, simple living with minimal reliance on outside fossil fuels and food.

Sustainability is Father Al’s scientific credo. He already “knew the treasure” of Appalachia, and now he was home—to stay, to empower, to confront, to facilitate, to demonstrate.

Hitch Your Future to the Sun

Solar energy—from 1980 onward—is a principal project at ASPI. I had hardly gotten in one door when I was ushered out another to meet youthful Joshua Bills and his solar-powered car.

If automakers’ messages about exterior beauty and interior comfort have been believed, Bills’s car may not impress. It’s a recycled 1988 Mitsubishi/ Dodge Colt.

Here’s what excites: This car makes no noise. It uses no oil, no coolant, no spark plugs. Unless it’s moving, this car uses no energy. Under the hood are eight batteries. Twelve more are stashed in the trunk, whose exterior sports a 20-watt solar panel to power the car’s electrical accessories, after the manner of an alternator.

Electrical power is gathered from solar collectors on a carport attached to ASPI headquarters. The car conversion cost $6,000. The cost of using it is less than $2 a month!

Of course, this solar-powered car can’t go far. Eighty miles uses about all the energy its many batteries can store—and it takes nine hours to recharge fully.

This doesn’t put Joshua off: “It’s a commuter car.” His excitement—and Father Al’s—is hard to resist. There’s plenty more renewable energy where the Colt’s comes from—and Joshua Bills and Al Fritsch have designs on it. The months-old Kentucky Million Solar Roofs Initiative is federally funded, headed by Bills and housed at ASPI. It’s in the right place, since the recycled parish hall now boasts a solar greenhouse on its south side, and a 1,500-watt solar electric system.

On March 15, after five months of negotiations with Kentucky Public Service Commission, ASPI was finally allowed to connect its solar-powered system to Kentucky Utility Company’s electric grid. That day, Father Al reports, the meter stopped and then began to run backwards, adding to the electric grid rather than depleting it.

Bills reports that ASPI’s electric bill is down by 50 percent and the meter runs backwards on sunny days—doubling the center’s delight in sunshine. This Kentucky first is an inspiration to the 55 Solar Initiative supporters already signed on. Bills and his Jesuit colleague expect many more to sign on now.

Asked about his collaboration with Father Al, Bills says, “He’s amazing! His personal energy is inexhaustible.” The much younger Bills suspects that Father Al may be often frustrated by the inability of others to keep up his pace.

ASPI staff members demonstrate other solar applications as well: food dryers, water heaters, solar photovoltaic electrical applications and solar greenhouses. The green house has a greenhouse, which harnesses the sun to raise out-of-season carrots, garlic, Swiss chard and herbs. Since 1997, their raised-bed gardens, installed where pavement once covered the soil, have yielded over seven thousand pounds of vegetables. Al Fritsch is the gardener.

Fine Flora and Fauna

But Mt. Vernon is in town, so to speak. To experience the Central Appalachian ecosystem in all its splendor, a trip to the ASPI Solar Demonstration House, built in 1979 for $20,000, and the Mary E. Fritsch Nature Center, is in order. (Mary Fritsch, Al’s mother, was a major supporter of the building’s construction.)

Some people think Central Appalachia was either resource-poor from the start or has been ravished of all its former beauty. The Nature Center, built in 1991, disproves that: Two dozen varieties of native trees can be seen right from the porch, while nearly 100 woody forest species grow within walking distance. Biologically speaking, this forest is mixed mesophytic, with more plant varieties than any other temperate forest in the world. If you’re from the city, a lush, thick, cool green umbrella of shade sums up the experience. Wildflowers abound in the spring, as do birds, especially during spring migration.

Across the road from the forest, on the Rockcastle River bank, ASPI will officially celebrate its 25th anniversary this June 1. River Day, held annually since 1984, typically includes trail walks, canoeing, camping and local musicians playing traditional instruments.

Rockcastle River was the first to have a “River Day,” but Father Al says, “Kentucky has more rivers than any other state” except Alaska, and now six of Kentucky’s 16 other rivers are also celebrated in June. In fact, June is now Kentucky River Month, and conservation campaigns to monitor and preserve this river richness are tied to what began on the banks of the Rockcastle.

The celebration will also mark a change for Father Al. He will be turning ASPI’s leadership over to Ben Perry. Al will be writing and, surely, demonstrating elsewhere in Appalachia, where his roots go deep.

Encouraging Ginseng Production

If there’s ginseng growing on ASPI’s 180 acres in Livingston, it’s unmarked— except by June’s hard, green berries—and it won’t be on the River Day tour. But a thick forest canopy is one basic requirement—and ASPI’s good stewardship has ensured that.

Ginseng grows all over Appalachia—except where the prerequisite shade has been obliterated by overharvesting of hardwood timber. In 1999, ASPI began the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation (AGF) with help from several funding agencies. A publication of the foundation calls ginseng “the silver bullet and the key to liberation of the Appalachians from the shackles of the extractive coal, timber, oil and wood-fiber industries.”

How so? International buyers will pay $400 a pound for mature, wild ginseng root! Ginseng, a medicinal herb highly regarded in Asia, is appreciated more and more in the United States for its therapeutic uses. It’s a “lucrative source of income that does not destroy the forest canopy,” says ASPI’s Web site ( Wild ginseng could prove a powerful incentive not to sell those trees or mining rights.

But poachers and overzealous harvesters must be discouraged from decimating an already endangered species. AGF, while it neither defends nor debates ginseng’s health benefits, is working hard to protect, produce and market virtually wild ginseng for its contributions to environmental and economic health in Appalachia. (ASPI is assisting university studies on ginseng’s effectiveness in treating prostate cancer.)

   Right now, AGF is focusing a lot of energy on a ginseng-marketing system, with a possible model in the tobacco-allotment system, which Al Fritsch calls a “good system superimposed on an unhealthy product.” The system would not be to limit production (as with tobacco) but to certify and protect growers. At this point, ginseng growers are extremely secretive, because in one afternoon a single poacher could wipe out a crop five or more years in the making—and fail to harvest in a way that ensures future crops.

Science and History Converge

Al Fritsch’s twin dedications to his scientific and his Jesuit roots come together in the ginseng project. It was Jesuits in China, he points out, who noted the high respect accorded ginseng in that nation—and speculated that Canada might also be a hospitable environment for the coveted herb.

Jesuits did indeed locate ginseng in Quebec and harvested roots “were sold for their weight in gold” in China, Father Al reported in National Jesuit News two years ago. In the 19th century, China traded tea and silk for ginseng. Today, demand holds steady since China’s ginseng-sheltering forests are fast disappearing.

ASPI lies in the heart of “the oldest and most varied temperate hardwood forest in the world,” as Al describes it. And a Jesuit is heavily involved in securing ginseng’s precarious place in that forest—and in the world. “My vision,” he says, “is that ginseng will replace tobacco” as a cash crop.

Educating in Print and Video

Jesuits seem destined to be teachers—whatever their assignment. Al Fritsch has been educating in print for decades now. Early books from a variety of publishers range from A Theology of the Earth to The Contrasumers: A Citizen’s Guide to Resource Conservation. Today eight other volumes (with three or four in the works) contribute in the realms of science, religion and government, a range that reveals how thoroughly the Jesuit has integrated faith, science, activism and communications.

Since 1986, ASPI has produced The Appalachian Simple Lifestyle Calendar, with evocative black-and-white photographs of Appalachia by Warren Brunner. The calendar provides “one-a-day” ways to practice ASPI’s credo. The organization publishes reading materials of all lengths and degrees of difficulty, meeting people wherever they are on the environmental continuum. ASPI has a quarterly newsletter, research reports, technical papers (66 since 1990), books and videos.

The videos are hosted by Father Al, interviewing and demonstrating aspects of Earth Healing, the name of his series, which airs first on WOBZ-TV in London, Kentucky. The videos, produced with the help of a grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have no glitzy production values, but they’re packed with information, presented simply and succinctly. Recently, ASPI added a feature-length film to its offerings, Virtually Wild Ginseng, featuring Syl Yunker of the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation.

Some print studies are posted free at the Web site and public service announcements air on local radio, so every medium but Hollywood has been enlisted to communicate a message of health and integrity for the land and people of Central Appalachia.

Partnerships for Health and Harmony

Father Al Fritsch knows how to both multiply and conserve his own energies as well. Most of his projects have been in collaboration with other people and other agencies. He exemplifies partnering and sharing. He energizes and empowers others.

Asked to name his most significant contribution, he is quick to name the Resource Assessment Service (RAS), begun by Al but now headed by Paul Gallimore, who’s been working with RAS for years. The service is an appraisal of all aspects of an institution’s resource use in the light of environmental harmony and spiritual commitment.

Gallimore, who began Long Branch Environmental Education Center in Leicester, North Carolina, 28 years ago, feels “blessed to have worked with Al these many years.” In 1978, the two met in Atlanta at a conference on appropriate technologies. Since they share a passion for—and a presence in—Appalachia, their paths intersect often.

In the past 20 years, ASPI has completed nearly 200 assessments in 34 states. Gallimore says institutions that have completed assessments will often follow up with technical questions or to ask how some new development will contribute to environmental safety and health.

While the service raises money for ASPI’s other projects, Al and Paul are proud that it also “raises respect for our region,” as users of the service associate the name Appalachia with sensitive and sustainable living.

No one leaves ASPI without something that endures: seeds from the demonstration gardens, fruit gathered from the trees—whatever’s in season is shared. Some people think it’s poor where Al Fritsch has cast his lot. To him, the events of last September bring out its true wealth.

In reflections written after 9/11, he observes: “The highly subsidized, nonrenewable energy economy is simply unsustainable and cannot be secured by any amount of military power....Tell [your children] the world cannot continue to exist divided between the haves and the have-nots, especially since the have-nots are realizing their power....We need to do as much soul-searching as flag-waving.”

Father Albert J. Fritsch, S.J., has searched his own soul and demonstrates daily what he’s learned: We can all partner to renew the earth and we need to be about that now.

ASPI’s address is 50 Lair St., Mt. Vernon, KY 40456-9806. Phone: 606-256-0077. E-mail: Web site:


Carol Ann Morrow is assistant managing editor of this magazine and has written other articles and editorials on environmental concerns.


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