FAITH THROUGH NATURE Parish garden clubs blossom into budding ministries
By Steve Euvino
Northwest Indiana Catholic
MERRILLVILLE – For some people, there’s something special about working outdoors, tending a garden. For them, it’s about being one with nature, watching something grow, nurturing that growth, and then marveling at the finished product.
Some parishes in the Diocese of Gary have taken gardening one step further – they’ve made it a ministry. Not only are they tending the soil, they’re nurturing their souls by working with others to beautify church grounds and help their communities by planting vegetables for area needy.
Holy Name in Cedar Lake is marking the fourth year of its community garden. The garden which covers nearly 3,000 square feet has produced more than 6,000 pounds of produce in its first three years. The harvest includes tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, cabbage, peppers, lettuce, beans, kale, herbs, beets, and onions.
Anita Torok, who coordinates the Holy Name garden, said their crops have helped St. Jude House, St. Monica Home, St. Joseph Soup Kitchen, St. Clare Clinic, Cedar Lake Food Bank, and parishioners.
“It’s a great feeling to see people’s faces when they receive parish produce,” Torok said.
The garden is not just about communing with nature, she added. “It’s about human dignity,” Torok said. “People feel they’re doing something for others.”
There’s also something spiritual about this garden, Torok said. “It’s very relaxing,” she said. “It’s more than just a vegetable garden. After Mass, families come by and walk through the garden. Sometimes they’ll give us plants.”
The Holy Name garden is an offshoot of the parish’s peace and social justice commission. At other parishes, gardening stems from arts and environment committees.
Such is the case at Queen of all Saints in Michigan City, where gardeners take a specific area for planting around the church, school, and rectory. The group also works with the Knights of Columbus to beautify the area around the outdoor pro-life cross.
The community recognized the QAS gardeners in 2014 with an honorable mention for neighborhood beautification.
“We’re all doing this for the glory of God and for the house of worship,” said Queens’ Jerry Tillman. “Whatever we do, it’s very important to make the outside of the church beautiful, as well as the inside.”
The garden club at St. Thomas More in Munster tends to parish grounds, mows grass, and plants flowers. Other chores include mower maintenance, repairing kneelers, and setting up outside lights for holidays.
“Anything you do to beautify the church and make it look good is a ministry in itself,” said St. Thomas More’s Dave Zawada. “When a church is looking good, it helps people recognize this is still an active church and people care for it.”
The garden ministry at St. Michael the Archangel in Schererville holds a spring flower sale to support its efforts, including beautification of the parish’s war memorial and Mount Calvary, overlooking the parish cemetery.
St. Michael’s Cheryl Kwiatkowski recalled “when a few of us get together, kneeling and planting on Mount Calvary, where many of our past parishioners are buried, we’re honoring our community. How much more spiritual can you get?”
Fred Bahnson, a Duke Divinity School graduate and pioneer in the church gardening movement, wrote “Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith,” in which he focused on four faith-based gardens, including a Trappist monastery in South Carolina that grows mushrooms.
The people Bahnson interviewed say gardens create opportunities for people to live out their faith in a more authentic way. Digging in the dirt, they say, brings together different people and allows for connections, not just with the soil, but with each other.
As the executive director of a community garden in North Carolina said, “We do peacemaking and community building. The food is simply a vehicle.”
At St. Mary in Griffith, members of the garden club take on a particular section of the parish grounds. “For myself,” the club’s Beth Burke said, “I feel I’m given the opportunity to beautify. People who come by may think, this looks like a friendly church.”
Ken Jankowski, who volunteers with the garden club at St. Paul in Valparaiso, said some people just like to “get down and get dirty.” That group plants flowers around the church, then waters the plants throughout the growing season.
“We’re making the church grounds beautiful and using what the Lord gives us,” Jankowski said. “It’s a way for people to help the church.”
Bryan McKay, a horticulturist, is working to revive the garden ministry at St. John the Evangelist in St. John. Faith, he said, is a big part of this ministry.
“When I’m in a garden, I’m closer to God,” McKay said. “You’re sharing your knowledge with people. It’s natural to do gardening. When you do that, you’re doing God’s work.”