In Your Own Backyard


Sister Amy Hereford tends to the garden at her home where she lives in an "ecovillage" in the Dogtown neighborhood of St. Louis.

By Mary Flick, CSJ

Sometimes, the answers we go looking for are found in our own backyard. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet often speak of their work to “care for creation” and advance “communion within the earth community” as tasks and goals—and rightfully so. But acting to protect the earth’s integrity and celebrating her beauty is being done by dozens of individual sisters across the continent—and in Carondelet— as Sisters of St. Joseph plant gardens in their own backyards.

Yes, one motive for their sweat and diligence may be the unmistakable sweetness of a juicy homegrown tomato. But often, it’s also for reasons far bigger than their backyard city plots.

‘Healing the Universe, One Plant at a Time’
Sister Amy Hereford will tell you in her first breath why she’s planting a butterfly garden on the Carondelet Motherhouse property. “Sisters of St. Joseph have always been out there doing what needs to be done, getting our hands dirty,” she says. “We are planting native plants here as a way of healing the universe, one plant at a time.”

These two strongly held beliefs were her reasons for requesting a grant for National Catholic Sisters Week to plant a butterfly garden at the southeast corner of the motherhouse campus. “Chances are you have never thought of Carondelet as a wildlife preserve,” she says. “But it’s possible. This is the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the United States.”

But it’s more than preservation; there’s beauty in the plan, too. “Sisters can enjoy the butterflies and birds we hope to attract. This garden will bring the place to life,” Sister Amy says, as she tells of the six types of native plants she’s selected that will bloom in late spring, early summer and in early fall. Native plants, like milkweed, provide the food web necessary for the specialized diets of native insects, like the Monarch butterfly. Sister Amy also hopes that the garden says to the countless guests who frequent the motherhouse grounds that they, too, can be part of the solution. “We can invite our friends and neighbors and circles of influence to bring in native plants to their backyards,” Sister Amy says.

Sister Amy, a practicing canon and civil lawyer, is also a founding member of the Dogtown Ecovillage eight miles northwest of the motherhouse in the city of St. Louis. The front and back yards of the home where she lives is filled with native plants, fruits and vegetables. Most summer mornings she is out working in her yard shortly after sunrise, before going inside to pray. “I’m taking care of the earth,” she says, “and God’s taking care of me.”

Sister Amy is quick to cite Pope Francis’ words in the papal encyclical, Laudato Si: Care for Our Common Home. “The pope affirms the direction my life started out in,” she says. “He brought it mainstream and made it okay to do ‘eco’ things in church.” But, Sister Amy notes, she wishes the pope would have more strongly connected environmental degradation and the cost to women. “Women and children are more deeply affected by the environment,” she says. Laudato Si “gives us a platform from which to share our CSJ charism: what you do affects me; what I do affects you. It’s our common home. Everything’s connected.”

All of this makes caring for creation a work of justice in the 21st century. “We are increasingly feeling the impact,” Sister Amy says. “The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are and the more likely you are to feel the impact [of environmental changes and losses]. Global security issues are ecological issues. Every war we have now has an ecological component,” she says. “We are reaping the harvest of centuries of industrialization and our unwitting overuse of environmental resources. There is increasing science around the problems we are dealing with as a society—even if we are unwilling to admit it.”

But Sister Amy remains confident that the smallest actions, together, make a difference. “I can plant a flower,” she says. “And when someone asks, ‘What did you do to today?’ I can tell them what I am doing and encourage them to do even more.”

‘Advancing the Cause of Systemic Change’
Sister Barb Jennings tells how she has been planting backyard gardens at almost every residence where she’s lived over the past 20 years. Now firmly rooted at the Carondelet Motherhouse. She planted one 10’x5’ raised bed immediately east of the grotto.

“It is a public witness for those who come here to see we are putting our efforts behind our words,” Sister Barb says. “We are showing support for our soil and for healthy organic eating.” Last summer’s crop of tomatoes, green beans, sweet peppers, eggplant and hot peppers, she says, were enjoyed by her local community.

“There’s a beauty in looking at your own flowers and produce and watching things grow,” Sister Barb says. But it’s more than beauty. “All green things help absorb carbon in our air, and add to the soil health of our planet,” she says.

Sister Barb also represents the Sisters of St. Joseph on the Carondelet Community Betterment Federation’s board. She notes that CCBF also has raised beds behind their office building a block from the motherhouse, with hopes of involving those they serve in the practice of growing their own food.

Sister Barb’s main ministry is coordinator of the Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investments (MCRI), a coalition of religious communities in the St. Louis area who work for justice by influencing the policies and practices of corporations through a variety of shareholder activities. She notes that the pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si, is being read by sustainability people at large corporations.

“It’s given an impetus to environmental considerations, especially to the issue of climate change,” she says. “Corporations look at the money. They see the environmental and social benefits of good environmental practices. They see the future of saving our planet.”

“By gardening, we are advancing the cause of systemic change,” she says. “How we eat, how we use our land are justice issues. We can eat less meat and more sustainable crops and buy organic,” Sister Barb suggests. Organic food is now a $10 billion business in the United States. It represents one of the major ways to change the current U.S. agricultural dependence on corn and soybeans.

“Eat less meat, less soybean products, less fattening foods,” Sister Barb continues. Not only are nuts, quinoa and beans good sources of protein, they are less expensive than meat. What’s good for Earth is also good for her people.

Gardening ‘Therapy’
“When spring comes,” Sister Monica Kleffner says, “I want to plant.” And she does—in a raised bed at the motherhouse, in the motherhouse kitchen’s herb garden, and in the backyard of another sister’s residence. At age 86, it’s more than a hobby she likes to do; it is a passion she needs to do.

Sister Monica has her gardening roots back home on the 250-acre family farm in Brinkton, Missouri. She has childhood memories of her family using horses for plowing and raising cows, pigs, chickens, geese and a few sheep. They also had an orchard with apple, peach and plum trees, whose produce always needed preserving. Her mother had a large garden and always needed help pulling weeds and picking vegetables—tasks that Sister Monica remembers she “didn’t always care to do.” But by the time she was seven years old, her mother gave her and her sister a patch for a garden of their own so “we could plant what we wanted. We loved it.” This inherited love of the earth grew with their own little garden.

Sister Monica, too, has had a garden almost everywhere she has called home and even places she hasn’t. Again this year, she plans to spade a sizeable plot in Sister Sandra Straub’s backyard. There, for the past two years, she has raised burpless cucumbers, onions and tomatoes, sharing the wealth of her work with the sisters and employees at the motherhouse.

“I enjoy working in the soil and watching plants grow, watching them mature,” Sister Monica says. “It is therapeutic for me. God gave us this beautiful earth and wants us to use it for our good and for our pleasure.”

‘Something We Hold in Common’
Sister RoseMary Brueggan calls gardening “a sign of life we can all afford to have.” Her reasons for gardening are simple: “It renews my spirit, it’s beautiful, and I can share that beauty with other people.”

Her love of gardening has long and deep roots, running back to her family’s 240-acre farm in Montgomery County, Missouri. She remembers when she was seven, she received from her parents the gift she most wanted: a flower garden. She brought her love of gardening to community. When a postulant, Sister RoseMary was responsible for removing weeds from the cracks of the motherhouse tennis court, though, she confesses, “I’m not sure we ever used it for tennis.”

She also has a preference for growing flowers. “We always had a vegetable garden at home and we all had responsibilities for it,” she said, speaking as the oldest of 10. “But the flower garden was mine.”

That love of flowers has carried her through the years to today, as she nurtures and tends to seven separate gardens in south St. Louis. In concrete circular tubs and stretches of median landscape, Sister RoseMary creates beauty against the brick and concrete background that city life is known for.

She likes to plant a mixture of perennials and annuals, including zinnias and the coreopsis.

Gardening is Sister RoseMary’s natural way of reaching out and building relationships with the neighbors who admire her flower beds. While planting in one of the three medians on Oleatha Avenue, she had an admiring gentleman stop with a personal request. “He told me he had Iris growing in his yard, but not the colors I had. Could he dig up some of his bulbs and exchange them for some of mine? I said, ‘Yes!’ I’m forging a connection with strangers who love the earth. We’re all connected. It enlarges my world, our world,” she says.

“I love the earth. It energizes me,” she says. “Gardening lifts my spirits, and I know it lifts others’, too. It’s my mission: to care for something we hold in common, our common home.”

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