It is early morning when the big van from Blair County Prison pulls onto the grounds of St. Bernardine’s Monastery in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. The seven inmates and their guard arrive twice a week to work at the Monastery Community Gardens of the Franciscan Friars, TOR. The inmates are growing fresh produce to feed the local prison population on three plots totaling 2700 square feet which they have planted and are now weeding and watering in anticipation of a good harvest of tomatoes, green peppers, green beans, cucumbers and other vegetables. In a cooperative effort, they also tend another 3600 square feet of garden on the food donation plots sponsored by the friars and dedicated to providing fresh vegetables to the local soup kitchen and several food banks.
The inmates are guided by a volunteer Master Gardener who provides the technical knowledge needed to have a successful garden. Their ready smiles express their appreciation of being able to come to the garden, enjoy the outdoors and take pride in their work while contributing to others in a healthy and rewarding way. Their experience is about much more than gardening. Warden Mike Johnston said, “When the guys get back to the jail they talk about their time in the garden the rest of the day. They love Br. John and Pat and the others who help them. They’ve never known what it’s like to be treated like equals from other adults.”
Pat Trimble, OFS, was the first person to respond to the friars’ idea for a community garden nearly five years ago. She sees it as enhancing her Franciscan vocation. Pat said, “Love of the soil and growing things, rain and sunshine, defines gardeners and Franciscans. We extend our hands and our hearts to our prison inmate friends as we tend the garden and produce fresh food for those less fortunate.” Br. John Kerr, TOR, is the point person on the project from the local fraternity. “For me, this was mainly about building community,” he said. “It’s taken awhile but we’re seeing it among the gardeners. Having the prisoners here has been a great gift to the friars and made us more visible in our area.”
The Community Gardens also leases 900 square foot plots to local gardeners who need more land than they have in the city to grow their vegetables. Some also grow flowers for their homes and churches. The friars also sponsor a flower garden plot from which anyone can cut flowers for shut-ins, friends, family or patients.
All of these ministries come under the umbrella of the Care for Creation Initiative which was begun over 4 years ago by the friars and several lay people. Their mission continues to offer quality land for green produce production; seeks to donate excess produce to persons in need; offers presentations on the environment, sustainability, and developing a spirituality inclusive of nature and creation; and cultivates community through teamwork and social events.
Fr. Patrick Quinn, TOR, Provincial of the Immaculate Conception Province, said “This whole project continues to bloom in ways we couldn’t have imagined. It has given new life to our province’s outreach to the marginalized and brought us a little closer to the care for creation that our father Francis taught us.”