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Body and soul: Franciscan garden plots feed faith and community

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The Turner Farms educational garden (pictured here last fall) donates its excess produce to area food charities. CT PHOTO/GAIL FINKE

By Erin Schurenburg

It began in Aachen, Germany, on Pentecost Sunday, 1845. Sister Gertrude Frank approached the soon-to-be foundress of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, Blessed Frances Schervier, about a new congregation.

In 1858, it spread to the United States. What was referred to then as the figurative “planting of a mustard seed” now includes a literal community garden on the grounds of St. Clare Convent in Cincinnati.

Gardeners from a refugee family tend to their plots in the Franciscan Community Garden. CT PHOTO/ERIN SCHURENBURG

It’s all part of Franciscan Ministries’ endeavor to continue the commitment of St. Francis of Assisi to minister to the marginalized of society. Though this one-acre plot is not large on a farm scale, the Franciscan Community Garden provides plots for 84 gardeners or families, seven community gardens, and one educational garden.

Marci Peebles, who directs both the Community Garden and Franciscans for the Poor, said that the project serves another important purpose: It helps refugees grow healthy food.

“We partner with an organization called Heartfelt Tidbits, a lcocal grass-roots organization that helps the refugee community, primarily from Bhutan but also from Nepal, organize around and overcome the challenges they face as citizens in a new land,” she explained. “Growing one’s own food increases food security, especially in terms of access to healthy food.”

The gardens provide other services as well.

Community partner Turner Farm, which oversees the educational garden, has provided gardening and composting workshops to gardeners and also donates extra produce grown on its plot to the convent, area soup kitchens and food pantries, and an independent living facility for low income seniors.

Altogether, Community Garden participants donate more than 1,000 pounds of produce each season. “The majority comes from the Community Crop Plots and Turner Farm Community Garden Program educational plots, although the individual gardeners are welcome to contribute,” Peebles said.

 

“The beginning of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis was, as is usual in the exceptional works of God, small, inconspicuous, and secluded, and remindful of the tiny mustard seed in the Gospel,” (from “Short Account on the Origin of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis”).

 

Just as the Native American process, nicknamed the “three sisters,” is a mutually beneficial process of growing corn, beans and squash together, so too do the participants of the Franciscan Community Garden work cooperatively and harmoniously. Gardeners pay a $25 one-time participation fee and a modest annual fee per plot, and promise to “work for good; to keep the Garden a happy, secure and enjoyable place where all participants can garden and socialize peacefully in a neighborly manner…and to be good stewards of the land and resources.” Part of that promise includes agreeing to volunteer at least 12 hours per year.

Plots are available in several sizes, the largest plot at the site being 40 x 20 -ft. Gardeners promises to cultivate and plant by June 1 and to put the plot to bed by Nov. 1, although some choose to plant a winter garden on their plot.

While Community Garden members come from a variety of backgrounds, many are refugees. Cincinnati is home to 34,000 refugees who have resettled in the United States since 2008, according to Heartfelt Tidbits. This number keeps growing each week, as secondary migrants (relocating refugees) move here from other cities. While Heartfelt Tidbits has many more interested gardeners in the program at St. Clare, the space set aside for the garden program is currently at capacity.

Heartfelt Tidbits was founded by Sheryl Rajbhandari, whose philosophy, “even if you can only give a tidbit of your time, it’s better than nothing,” shaped the name of the group. Volunteer efforts began in 2008 when the first Bhutanese refugee family arrived. Within the first year, 156 people arrived. These new arrivals needed help with all manner of acclimating to a new land,  language and customs. By the end of 2015, Heartfelt Tidbits was helping more than 12,000 people.

“Growth is an understatement,” Rajbhandari said.

After the hardships that the refugees endured, having spent years in difficult, dangerous living conditions, Rajbhandari wants the new arrivals to feel welcomed and supported. “This support could be English, citizenship, acculturation support, art, sewing, driving lessons, gardening, hospital visits, wedding celebrations, school assistance, referrals to partner organizations for services, or just a friendly phone call,” she said.At the same time that Heartfelt Tidbits was mushrooming, Franciscan Ministries was reorganizing its separate programs under one umbrella. What started as a garden program in 2009 organized under Centennial Barn on the grounds of St. Clare, is now its own program under the Franciscan Ministries umbrella of programs, which include the Centennial Barn, Our Lady of the Woods, Franciscans for the Poor, Tamar’s Place, and Haircuts from the Heart.

More than 90 garden plots (pictured here after harvest in 2016) crowd the one-acre community gardent site at the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor’s St. Clare Convent. CT PHOTO/GAIL FINKE

 

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