Beneath a blanket of soft clouds, hundreds gathered in celebration. Volunteers from the “cluster” Catholic churches of St. John, Highland Springs; St. Patrick, Richmond; and St. Peter, Richmond, have dedicated countless hours this year to planting and tending their burgeoning community garden.
The fruits and vegetables grown here are donated to St. Peter’s outreach program. Hundreds of pounds of food have been distributed in the community, helping hundreds of families. On Sept.17, the cluster community came together to recognize this accomplishment and share food of their own with a potluck picnic. Father Nick Redmond, parochial vicar for the cluster, blessed the garden, which is located on the grounds of St. John.
“I know that God has blessed us so abundantly through this community garden,” said Father Redmond. “It has brought together many individuals who, for one reason or another, feel drawn to working in this garden to help produce food for the working poor and homeless of downtown Richmond.”
Father Redmond explained that the three churches joined forces eight years ago, largely out of necessity. There were too few priests to go around and the three parishes have relatively small populations.
The connections between these parishes run deep: the two oldest parishes in Richmond, St. Peter and St. Patrick, are only one mile apart; St. John was originally founded in 1913 as a mission to St. Patrick, so it seemed natural to combine the three into one cluster.
An avid gardener himself, Father Redmond has been an integral part of the gardening project. He threw his full support behind it, literally getting his hands dirty by building garden beds and spreading mulch.
“I am really just one set of hands among many,” he said. He also helped procure $2,600 in donations from Lowe’s and Home Depot for supplies. This, along with donations from the three parishes, helped fuel the endeavor.
Father Redmond credits much of the garden’s success to St. John parishioner and garden coordinator Sharon Lucas, who Father Redmond said is “clearly filled with the Holy Spirit.” Lucas first thought about starting a community garden several years ago after visiting other community gardens in the area, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that her vision was put into action.
Food shortages during the pandemic resulted in a decline in food bank donations and inflation resulted in skyrocketing food prices. Many couldn’t afford healthy food, if any food at all. Lucas thought a garden would be a great way to bring the cluster together and serve those who were going hungry.
She also felt the grounds of St. John, the largest of the three cluster parishes, would be the perfect place for the garden as it has more land, parking and space. Lucas introduced the idea to St. John’s pastoral council, and its members voted unanimously in favor of the garden. The first planting took place in April of this year, and it has already proved to be a great success.
“In this time of so much division, we feel we are making strides in unity and understanding. There are many life lessons to be learned in a garden – no wonder God put our first parents in one!” she said.
Dozens of volunteers from the cluster worked together for months, donating time, money, seeds, expertise, and other forms of support. Soon, veggies were sprouting up: tomatoes, green peppers, zucchini, squash, radishes, eggplant and more created a colorful tapestry of faith at work.
One of these volunteers is Linda Shisler, affectionately known as the garden’s “Plant Mom,” who saw the garden as a chance to carry out her late husband’s wishes.
“His goal once he retired was to enlarge our garden so that we could grow vegetables to help feed the homeless at St. Peter. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his dream come true. My helping with the community garden is my way of honoring Bob,” she said.
Shisler recognizes the garden is truly a team effort and would not be possible without each volunteer, supporter, and beneficiary. “Everyone involved has been devoted to the success of the garden. It is because of their commitment that the garden has accomplished so much in so little time,” she stated.
The garden now boasts 22 raised beds, each measuring 8’ by 4’ and filled with well-tended fruits and vegetables. Food is usually harvested two or three times per week, then delivered to St. Peter later that day.
“This has just been so awesome!” exclaimed Kris Mednikov, who works with St. Peter Outreach. “Most of our guests receive pantry services, which consist of canned or jarred food items, but all this growing season they been given bags of fresh, organic vegetables along with their groceries. The garden is a spectacular sight!”
Mednikov shared that St. Peter serves around 350 people per week, who are referred to as “guests.” The outreach program provides food, showers and clothes. They also provide contacts with the Department of Social Services and offer assistance in writing résumés.
The garden has also been a learning experience for those involved. While some volunteers are experienced gardeners, others are novices. Lucas has invited speakers to teach about composting and constructing rain barrels, which is a method of conserving and recycling water. She also hopes to invite others who can share their knowledge about native plants and insects, and take field trips to other gardens for inspiration.
Father Brian Capuano, pastor of the cluster, sees the garden as a way to think globally while acting locally. “The Church recognizes the value of men and women beginning with their immediate environment, the local,” he said.
“In the language of subsidiarity, things should be addressed on the local level before the higher levels need to get involved. On the local front, the parish recognized the need, the parishioners and staff mobilized, and together they provided a fruitful contribution to the community,” Father Capuano added.
With the abundance of food – and faith – that now grows here, Lucas noted that St. John was originally built on top of a Civil War battlefield. “It’s comforting to know that where there was death and desolation many years ago, we are now bringing life and vitality,” she said.
Now that the garden is up and running, Lucas is already looking towards ways to expand. She plans to apply for a $5,000 diocesan grant. The cluster is also hoping to one day add an orchard, gazebo, vineyard, and picnic tables. All of this is an effort to offer “a serene and peaceful atmosphere away from the bustle of city life,” said Lucas.
Reflecting on the connection between God and nature, Father Redmond noted, “It is a profound mystery that our Lord allows us to use the earth, and earthly things, to enter into the heavenly realities of unconditional love and sacrifice for the other.”
“It has been beautiful to watch – not just all the amazing and various plants growing and producing, but more importantly the people of all walks of life who might otherwise never have gotten to know each other, coming together to share a vision,” said the parochial vicar.
“And what an amazing position for me to be able to also witness the faces of our poor and homeless who come to St. Peter’s and then choose from so many produce to enjoy, knowing that it was love that brought those produce to them,” added Father Redmond.
If you would like to volunteer or donate to the cluster community garden, please contact Sharon Lucas at [email protected].