Catholic parishes throughout the Diocese of Knoxville support a number of different ministries. Some are focused on developing the mind, some on healing the spirit, some on leading souls to conversion, and some are of the soil.
Yes, soil. As in agriculture. As in farming. As in growing vegetables to feed the less fortunate. St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge has had its own agriculture program for the last eight years and has continued the tradition through the 2017 growing season.
Deacon Gary Sega started the program in 2010 after attending a retreat at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City. He said, “We noticed they had a big garden on the grounds and wondered why we couldn’t do the same. We got the necessary permission, found a local farmer to plow the ground, and got started. Since St. Mary’s has a food pantry, we thought it made sense to provide their clients with fresh vegetables from a garden that was only 200 feet away.”
The garden area (about 3,500 square feet) on the parish grounds is called Thibodaux Gardens. It got that name because a parishioner who was instrumental in getting a stout fence built to keep the animals out was from Thibodaux, La. Crops are normally planted in April after the threat of frost is over. Students from St. Mary elementary school also contribute to the garden by growing vegetables from seeds in the school’s greenhouse until they’re ready to be transplanted.
Many of the vegetables in the garden are grown from seeds to keep costs down. The volunteer gardeners have to water and weed throughout the summer as well as pick the crops when they’re ready. In short, the volunteers are engaged in all the activities required of any agricultural enterprise throughout the growing season. There are about a dozen parishioners who tend the garden from April through September, and they do it because they want to help people in the community who use the parish’s food pantry.
“It helps us tremendously,” said the director of the pantry, Mary Ann Gubanc. “Our clients get fresh vegetables that supplement what we normally provide. The quality of the vegetables is terrific, and they get to pick out what they want. I’d be hard-pressed to remember anyone not taking fresh vegetables.”
Whatever is left over, and it’s not much, goes to other charities in Anderson County.
In a typical year the vegetables grown in the garden include tomatoes, corn, peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, beans, kale, okra, eggplant, cucumber, and onions.
It’s not a ministry that one typically finds in a Catholic parish, but there’s always room for innovative ways to serve. Even if it means getting your hands dirty.