With the demolition of Fennell Hall expected to start this summer for the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, the school plans to cut down the over 150-year-old Grand Fennell Oak to make room for this building. Immediately, faculty from all disciplines, as well as students and families, began demonstrating their frustration and opposition to these plans. A student-created change.org petition has since been published online, asking for the College to rethink this decision. Amassing over 600 signatures in the first three days alone and over 1,000 in the first week, the petition has received great support from our campus community, proving how much the red oak is valued by our community members. From a monetary perspective, The Grand Fennell Oak is appraised at over $44,000, according to the tree asset value listed on the 2022 Providence College Tree Inventory and Management Plan. However, it’s clear that this tree has a significantly greater inherent, historic, and personal value to members of the Providence College community.
Many petition supporters have brought up the environmental importance of trees, explaining that trees are important habitats for insect species, as well as important for air and stormwater filtration, as Jill Parrett, Director of Environmental Health and Safety, explains. Trees play an integral role in removing pollution from our air, converting it into clean, breathable oxygen. She also mentions that trees have the added benefit of alleviating stress and improving mental health. In addition, Parrett states that “mature trees with large canopies also provide a respite from the urban heat islands we live in.” Multiple comments on the petition similarly address how trees will be essential in helping us cope with increased temperatures due to climate change. As carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise due to our reliance on fossil fuels, we will need trees to remove these pollutants from our atmosphere via photosynthesis. However, if we carelessly cut down trees, we threaten our planet and our very existence. It is especially important to protect large trees like the Grand Fennell Oak, as larger trees are much more effective at removing atmospheric pollutants than small trees.
Additionally, native trees play an essential role in our ecosystem. As Providence College cuts down native trees and replaces them with non-native species, this will threaten the biodiversity we have on campus. For example, Audubon explains that scientists have determined that oak trees are home to more than 550 moth and butterfly species. This means that oaks are not only vital to the survival of these insects, but organisms that rely on caterpillars, moths, and butterflies as food. Audubon adds that in contrast, the ginkgo tree, a non-native species, supports just five species. We need to prioritize preserving these valuable tree species and keeping our campus a natural environment where nature and biodiversity can flourish.
Others add that it is our responsibility to protect Creation and serve as stewards of our environment as highlighted in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Sí: On the Care of Our Common Home. Dr. Lynette Boos from the Mathematics and Computer Science Department emphasizes that we have “been entrusted with an irreplaceable resource for current and future students, and it is our responsibility to be careful stewards and not do anything short-sighted because it seems convenient.” Dr. Joe Cammarano of the Political Science Department similarly adds that these decisions cannot be based on short-term economic gain; rather, they must focus on and prioritize our long-term stewardship of our Earth. When the School of Nursing and Health Sciences opens, Providence College will undeniably grow economically; however, we cannot ignore the long-term consequences of these actions which would endanger the preservation of nature for future generations, he explains.
In his encyclical, Pope Francis highlights that we need to stop treating nature as a resource to be manipulated and exploited to our advantage. To cut down the Grand Fennell Oak would be in direct opposition to the words of Pope Francis. In his encyclical, he explains, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” Cutting down the Grand Fennell Oak only perpetuates this trend of human destruction which the Pope is trying to warn us about. We have no right to carelessly destroy and rid our planet of its biodiversity. To do so would be to violate God’s Creation. Dr. Sandra Keating from the Department of Theology echoes this idea, explaining that the Grand Fennell Oak “does not belong to us; it belongs to the order of Creation. These are the types of decisions that have contributed to our current environmental issues.”
As explained in Laudato Sí, we owe it to future generations to preserve and protect plants, animals, and our environment. Providence College Alumni have explained similar sentiments. Beth Ferland ’94 talks about how she has multiple family members that have attended Providence College, all walking on the same grounds as the Grand Fennell Oak. “My dad walked by this tree, many of my uncles, myself, my husband, and now my daughter,” she says. “Looking forward to the future hoping my grandchildren will enjoy the tree and think of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who were witnesses to this grand tree.” Choosing to cut down this tree would erase an important part of history for many alumni, students, and faculty.
Professors also have strong memories associated with the tree. Judd Schiffman of the Art Department, for example, has used the Grand Fennell Oak as a source of inspiration in his ceramics classes. He explains that in the studio, students have been making sculptures to place at the base of its trunk and honor the tree. Schiffman adds that he makes a point to walk underneath the Grand Fennell Oak when he travels from the studio to the art gallery in Smith Center for the Arts, explaining that “it creates an abundance of shade and feels like a wild, natural space in the midst of a very well-groomed and cared for campus.”
Dr. Boos, whose office is in Howley Hall, also has a strong connection to the red oak. Since her first day at Providence College, she has been “in awe of this tree,” something she continues to feel every morning when she walks into her office. Parrett adds that during her field work across campus, she loves observing the tree change from season to season, whether it’s watching the leaves change color or counting bird nests.
Current students have also expressed their deep, personal connections with the Grand Fennell Oak. Lily Alessandro ’24 has lived in Fennell Hall since her freshman year. Although she is sad about the demolition of the building, she hopes that the tree can remain and “coexist” as our campus continues to grow. She explains that she chose to live in Fennell Hall because of its “closeness to nature.” Alessandro appreciates the naturalness of lower campus and this tree specifically, as much of the environment on campus is carefully pruned and landscaped. As a Catholic, she explains that the Grand Fennell Oak serves as a reminder of the beauty and mystery of nature, as well as God’s creativity and love for Creation.
Another PC student, Sarah Klema ’23, lived in Fennell Hall during the pandemic, explaining that during this isolating time, the Grand Fennell Oak, which stood right outside her window, helped her feel less alone. She states that each day, “it became routine to greet the tree before entering [her] dorm, or to stand under its presence in a moment of contemplation when coming back from a walk.” She felt protected underneath its canopy, during a time in which she needed this comfort.
The only question that remains is what can we, as students, faculty, families, and alumni, do to save this historic tree? Dr. Tuba Agartan of the Health Sciences Department explains that sustainability needs to be prioritized more at Providence College, specifically by incorporating sustainability initiatives into the College’s strategic plan and courses. From a student level, one of the best things we can do is speak out and express our opinions. Student support and advocacy has been imperative in implementing some of the most impactful sustainability changes on campus. From composting to reusable to-go boxes, these are successful initiatives that were brought up and proposed by students. By expressing our opposition to the destruction of the Grand Fennell Oak, students can play a critical role in saving this tree.
The Grand Fennell Oak existed long before Providence College was established. It would be careless to cut it down and lose such an important part of history and our ecosystem. As Dr. Keating explains, “At a Catholic College, we should be an example of commitment to protect Creation, not to destroy what is in our way.”