Nine-year-old Benjamin Schmidt was digging in dirt, still in his church clothes.
“It’s my thing,” Benjamin said, his eyes fixed on rows of plants ready for placement in the rich, dark soil of the raised beds at the new parish community garden at St. Catherine Laboure Church in Sappington. The garden’s bounty will provide healthy food for people in need.
Benjamin also has a small garden behind his house to grow food for a pantry.
The motivation was to bring healthy, nutritious food to the Affton Christian Food Pantry, which is supported by St. Catherine Laboure and other churches in south St. Louis County. A leadership development effort with eighth-graders at St. Catherine Laboure School was tied into the garden project as well.
Another parishioner, Laurie Jost, stressed that the garden just needs sunshine, rain and prayer. “It’s so much fun to see the plants come to life and to share the plants not just with the squirrels and rabbits,” she said with a smile.
Across from her, planting tomato, pepper and bean plants, was Katie Meyer, who cited the hardships people faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to help them with healthy food.
As he planted basil, tomatoes and green peppers, Tom Winkelmann called the gardening project a way of sharing camaraderie and “God’s great gift of sun, fun and relaxation with people you don’t usually see.”
It’s currently called the St. Catherine Victory Garden, reminiscent of communities coming together during World War II to support one another.
Gateway Greening, an organization that educates and empowers people to strengthen their communities through gardening and urban agriculture, is providing materials and expertise.
“It’s a beautiful partnership that is getting us started in the right direction,” said Deanna Violette, an organizer of the community garden.
Last year, Violette provided food to the Affton Food Pantry from her garden, and this year she invited others to do the same. “It took off from there,” she said.
“The garden really came from people wanting to help people to be as healthy and holy as possible,” Violette said. “There’s a big tie-in to caring for others, the charism of St. Vincent de Paul, ‘Laudato Si’ (Pope Francis’ encyclical) and care for the environment and earth, having an appreciation for all of the gifts God has given us.”
Some of the readings at Mass earlier had focused on the harvest, bearing fruit and other things Jesus uses in the Gospels to planting, abundance and similar topics. “It’s very special how deeply we can connect Scripture with what we’re doing,” Violette observed.
About 30 people in the parish so far are involved after a notice was placed in the bulletin. Help was sought from people to plant extra in their gardens, donate produce containers for transporting the harvest, support the project financially, pray for a bountiful harvest, build the garden beds, donate materials, weed, water and harvest.
Referring to the victory garden, Violette said that “we’ve been at war with a virus. So many people lost their jobs and rely on the community to come together. It’s also a neat way for multiple organizations in our church to come together, to build unity. It’s a neat opportunity for friendship and fellowship. Working in the soil is very healing besides the great food it will produce.”
Steve Brinkmeyer, youth minister at St. Catherine Laboure, said the garden is a good way to connect students with service in the community and leadership skills. The students and the parish volunteers, many of them from a faith and racial equity group, worked in partnership. Students began growing plants in pots at home and second-graders earlier did planting, with a goal of populating the garden with herbs and spices, tomatoes, watermelons, peppers, beans, squash, cucumbers, carrots — and marigolds as pollinators.
>> Expert advice
The St. Catherine Victory Garden came to fruition thanks to some experts, as well as parishioners with much less gardening experience.
Myra Rosenthal, chair of the Garden of Eden at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, was a mentor from Gateway Greening. The garden she’s associated with grew 5,300 pounds of food for a local food pantry. She helped the Catholic parish build the garden beds and with planting.
Rosenthal gives the St. Catherine Laboure parishioners an A+ with their work. A schedule the parishioners developed for tending the garden throughout the summer will help sustain it, she said. “They’re off to a great start.”
A parishioner, Carolyn Winkelmann, is a Master Gardener, working with the Missouri Botanical Garden and the University of Missouri Extension service. She packaged seeds for the gardeners to take home and provided advice such as planting the seeds as deep as the width of the seed.
Winkelmann enjoys working with new gardeners. “It sets them on fire,” she said. “It’s important for people to know how to grow things. Things grown at home are more nutritious, and it allows them to ripen at a natural rate.”
For information on Gateway Greening, visit gatewaygreening.org. For information on the St. Louis Master Gardener program, which provides horticultural information and assistance to the public, visit stlmg.org. For assistance in starting a garden at a parish, contact Deanna Violette at [email protected].