Parishioners of the Episcopal Church of the Atonement, members of the Westfield Puerto Rican Association, community members and staff from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation celebrated Earth Day 2024 with a tree-planting ceremony.

Reminder Publishing photo by Mike Lydick

WESTFIELD — The Episcopal Church of the Atonement celebrated Earth Day 2024 by hosting a tree planting ceremony. Two new trees were planted to replace a cooper beech tree that once grew in front of the church but was cut down in January due to disease and decay.

The April 20 event honored the beech tree’s legacy with the planting of two native trees — an American linden (basswood) and a black gum. The Rev. Sandi Albom said they will recapture some of the many environmental and social benefits lost when the beech tree was removed. Albom, interim rector for the church, said Earth Day was the perfect occasion to plant the trees.

“Not only is this time of year good for planting, but Earth Day calls us to renew our commitment to do better in caring for our common home for which our Creator has called us to be good and faithful stewards,” she said.

Members of the community and parishioners gathered on a Saturday morning on the church’s front lawn for a special tree-planting prayer service that included singing John Denver’s “Plant a Tree.” One parishioner read the book “A Tree Is Nice,” while another performed a guitar solo as part of the celebration.

Albom said the beech tree — estimated to be about 200 years old — provided a place for gathering and many community activities. She said when the church hosted a ceremony to honor the tree before cutting it down, many people told stories about the stately beech and events it witnessed in their lives: weddings, church services, children playing, picnics and the Westfield Farmers Market.

“At the Farmers Market this summer there will be a contest to guess the age of the tree marked by the number of rings revealed when it was cut down,” said Albom.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Greening the Gateway Cities Program provided and planted the trees at no cost to the church. This state-run program plants free trees in urban neighborhoods.

Agma Sweeney, president of the Westfield Puerto Rican Association, said the organization partners with the Church of the Atonement at the Farmers Market to publicize the tree-planting program.

She said her organization received a grant from Gov. Maura Healey’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to promote the tree program in downtown Westfield, which includes where the church is located.

“The two trees selected by the church and by the DCR are native species well suited to our climate,” said Sweeney. “In a few decades, they will become large trees as part of the crop of new trees being planted in Westfield.”

Sweeney said the beech tree provided a permanent shaded area with its mature canopy. It also provided “a cooling effect” for neighboring streets while beautifying the neighborhood.

“Everyone present at the tree planting and in the community is still coming to terms with the loss of a giant tree that was one of only a very few large trees left in downtown Westfield,” she said.

Sweeney said it’s still “physically shocking” to see the empty space where the beech tree once stood.

“We’ll feel its loss even more during the hot summer months. This is why we need our urban canopy replenished. This Earth Day event is the correct response for our diminishing tree canopy. When one tree is gone, plant two trees in its place.”

The Westfield Puerto Rican Association president said planting trees to restore a tree canopy is “one of the nicest and most effective things we can do to benefit our planet, our city, our neighborhoods and our families.” Albom added that the church hopes to continue its legacy in the community with the planting and care of new trees in the future.

More than 600 trees have been planted in Westfield by DCR since the program was started in May 2021. The goal is to plant 2,400 trees in the downtown area. Westfield is one of 23 cities taking part in the program.

Albom said the church has participated in many Earth Day activities. Last year, it planted a “Good News Garden” on its property that yielded vegetables and herbs that were given to the community through the Westfield Food Pantry and the church’s Little Free Food Pantry. She said it will continue this year — hopefully with expanded donations.