Feeding the hungry, tending creation

Feeding the hungry and caring for God’s creation have been an important aspect of the Columban Fathers’ international mission.

So starting a community garden this spring at their national headquarters in Bellevue made sense, Columban Father Thomas Glennon said.

The religious community offered a section of its property, on a former soccer field, to interested gardeners, giving preference to people who didn’t have enough space of their own. The Columban Fathers asked gardeners to offer part of their harvest to people in need at the Bellevue Food Pantry and Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center.

People of all ages and backgrounds responded – some experienced gardeners, some new – and now are growing their own tomatoes, herbs, peppers and other food in 25 individual 4-by-8-foot plots, said Ted Menzel, a Columban Affiliate and a member of St. Mary Parish in Bellevue, who helped establish the garden.

The Columban Fathers garden is just one example in the archdiocese of people working together in community gardens large and small, with side-by-side individual plots or one combined garden – to grow food for themselves and others.

The work involves basic stewardship: taking God’s gifts of seeds, soil, moisture and sunlight and multiplying those gifts. And by caring for the earth and others, the community gardeners say, they draw closer to the Lord and fellow gardeners.

A few places where gardens are flourishing in the archdiocese:


Caring from the heart

Members of Sacred Heart Parish in Omaha are among those who tend a community garden at Heart Ministry Center, an independent charity located on Sacred Heart property, with Father Thomas Fangman, Sacred Heart’s pastor, on its board of directors.

Most of the cucumbers, cayenne peppers, okra, collard greens, tomatoes and other produce grown in the Heart Ministry Garden go to its food pantry, which helps feed about 5,500 people each month, said Mark Dahir, director of operations at Heart Ministry.

"We take pride in getting really good food for our pantry, fresh out of the garden," said Dahir, a member of Christ the King Parish in Omaha.

Hundreds of people tend eight 15-by-20-foot beds. The gardeners include those who seek assistance at the center and others who just want to help. Organizers schedule groups from churches, schools and elsewhere for weeding, watering and other chores.


Volunteers at Catholic Charities

Seniors and other volunteers grow food for themselves and others at Catholic Charities’ Christ Child North Center in Omaha.

"Anyone who comes to the center can help," said Christine Merrell, senior services coordinator.

More than 30 people work in 12 garden beds that measure 8-by-5 feet, she said. The beds are raised about 18 inches off the ground so gardeners don’t have to bend so low, Merrell said.

The volunteers have grown tomatoes, onions, lettuce, broccoli, peppers, sweet potatoes and greens.

"Once we get them going, they’re absolutely lovely," Merrell said of the garden plots, which were started about four years ago with the help of a United Methodist church.

The food goes to the seniors and to the center’s food pantry and family enrichment participants.

The gardeners are a faith-filled group who enjoy growing food with their own hands and giving to the community, Merrell said. "It’s the right thing to do – to help someone out."


Community of sharing

At St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha, the people who maintain 32 plots measuring 13-by-13-feet in the Harvest of Faith Garden help the homeless, as do many parishioners who garden at home.

They bring in their surplus produce for parish farmers’ markets in the late summer and early fall. Proceeds are donated to the Stephen Center homeless shelter, said Dina Turco, the parish secretary and garden coordinator.

The farmers’ markets have raised more than $1,000 for the shelter in a single season, she said.

The gardeners also feed fellow parishioners by offering on tables at the church free tomatoes and other produce.

For more than 10 years, the Harvest of Faith Garden has helped create a sense of community at St. Leo, Turco said.

"It’s a huge, huge success," she said. "We love it."

"People get to know each other besides sitting in a pew together," she said. "And they all have a common interest, gardening."


Lightening the load

Members of St. Patrick Parish in Fremont work together on an approximately 80-by-60-foot garden on church grounds and share the harvest.

They grow tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, green beans, peas, squash, gourds – plus an area of wildflowers to attract bees to help pollinate the rest of the garden, said Father James Keiter, associate pastor.

Father Keiter and a few parishioners do most of the work, but others help. People can pick something from the garden but are asked to put in some work in exchange, he said. "If you pick a tomato, pull a weed."

They lighten the load by sharing the work, he said.

The garden, in its third year now, provides an abundance of food that can be preserved and used in meals and recipes through the winter, including Father Keiter’s spaghetti sauce, which he gives away to parishioners.


Guiding gardens

St. Theresa of Avila Parish in Clearwater created a temporary community garden in a lot the parish recently purchased.

Grass will be planted on the land in the fall, but the parish decided to till the ground and let five or six parishioners have their own garden plots this year, said Father James Kramper, pastor of St. Theresa, St. Peter de Alcántara Parish in Ewing and St. John the Baptist Parish in Deloit Township of rural Holt County.

The garden covers about 1,600 square feet, or about a quarter of the empty lot’s size, he said.

Father Kramper and parishioners at St. Peter de Alcántara have grown decorative gourds near the church for six years. The gourds are sold, and workers receive a share of the profits for each hour they worked.

At all three parishes, members have garden exchanges in the back of the churches, where people can trade what they’ve grown in their home gardens or just share the food, rather than have surplus produce go to waste, Father Kramper said.

"It’s a good feeling to take something home from church," he said. "You bring your offertory envelope, but this is something you can take home."


32 years of helping

Father Wayne Pavela – chaplain at St. Francis High School in Humphrey and Holy Family High School in Lindsay – and dozens of his helpers provide truckloads of sweet corn and other vegetables and fruit to food pantries, senior centers and other places from 8½ acres of land farmed east of Columbus.

His huge gardens have helped people in need for 32 years. Other people have helped him, Father Pavela said, and growing the produce is one way to pass on the kindness.

"It’s turned into a very big ministry," he said.

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