In the community garden supported by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, gardeners strategically place plants where they grow best and most benefit the garden. The perfect spot for cherry tomatoes is near the sidewalk where passersby sometimes stop to help or to share a story with those tending the 500-square-foot garden on the CSJ community’s St. Paul campus.
“When people are leaning over and picking a cherry tomato off, a story comes up . . . and so these beautiful rich stories tend to flow when we’re out gardening together,” said Jennifer Tacheny, coordinator of the garden, part of the CSJ’s young adult ministry called Celeste’s Dream. “The more diversity among the gardeners as far as our experiences and our ages, the more rich those stories tend to be.”
Now in its eighth growing season, the garden brings together several generations of gardeners who seek to nurture community with each other and visitors while growing vegetables, herbs and flowers — a good portion of which they donate to a food shelf and other organizations. Along with edible produce, the garden also has yielded spiritual and ethical fruit.
Gardeners anticipate that new residents of the partially completed Carondelet Village senior community nearby — including many retired CSJ sisters — will become familiar with the garden this year, said St. Joseph Sister Jill Underdahl, Celeste’s Dream co-director and vocation director for the CSJ’s St. Paul province.
“The garden has just been that place, the point of intersection that’s been very natural for people of different generations to come together,” she said.
“There’s a lot of skill and experience that the sisters possess through their many years of gardening and caring for the earth, and the young adults are kind of yearning to learn these practices and skills. It’s just been a real natural place for learning and conversation to rise.”
The idea for the garden came from conversations with young adults about contributing to the common good in the context of community, Sister Jill said. “What kind of emerged out of that experience was, ‘what’s the movement of this time? What’s the need of this time?’” she said. “The needs of environment and ecology were consistently rising in the group.”
The garden “really became a point of convergence of CSJ mission, chapter directive, young adult needs and interests and a place of action,” Sister Jill added.
From 15 to 30 gardeners care for the garden together on Tuesday evenings during the growing season, said Tacheny, who also co-directs Celeste’s Dream. Although anyone can participate, current gardeners range in age from 2 to 80-something, and include St. Catherine University students, young adults, CSJ sisters and consociates, neighbors and friends, she added.
Unlike other community gardens that are divided into individual plots, the gardeners communally create and work on a single plan, she said. They also periodically cook, preserve and eat their produce together. The CSJ community provides the land, water, a tool shed and some materials. Gardeners also have donated tools and seeds.
Gardening reflects values
“The way that we really kind of prioritize building community and learning by gathering on a common night, that is a unique feature,” Tacheny said.
The garden reflects a connection to Catholic social teaching and care for creation, she said.
“It’s also a symbol of the sisters’ values . . . I think it’s really responding to the needs of the time as far as healthy food and being a place that can teach urban people how to grow their own food and how to grow healthy food organically,” Tacheny said.
Gardeners also find opportunities for spiritual reflection, Sister Jill said.
“When we were initially talking about the garden, I didn’t foresee so concretely those kind of spiritual reflective conversations emerging and yet they have been very naturally and authentically,” she said.
After working in the garden for several years herself, this year, Ann Shields is participating with her daughter, Margaret, also an experienced community gardener. A St. Bonaventure (Bloomington) parishioner, Ann likes the garden’s communal focus. “We get together to plan for beauty and plan to give away the produce,” she said.
“It’s a community effort from start to finish.”
The mother and daughter appreciate the chance to garden together. “This was something both of us really liked to do, something that we could do together and we have a connection to St. Kate’s and the Sisters of St. Joseph,” Margaret said. “I also really like the way the garden works . . . the idea that it’s communally run and that there’s a focus on food donation as well as just a really great community of other people to grow with and learn from.”