Caring for 'Mother Earth, who produces fruits & herbs'

By Renae Bauer
published Fall 2012

It's finally a cool, late-summer morning.  Sister Marie Goretti Marcelle welcomes the drop in temperature as she weaves up and down the garden rows at St. Francis Convent looking for ripe pickles, tomatoes or beans. It's been a long, hot summer in the vegetable garden where she has worked most mornings and some afternoons regardless of the heat or humidity. The only two things that keep her away are attending daily Mass and the rare rainfall.

For more years than she can remember, Sister Marie Goretti has returned to Green Bay each summer to work in the convent's garden.  It's the way she likes to spend her summer break from teaching religion to schoolchildren and volunteering at nursing homes in the Kaukauna area.  Gardening is second nature to this Sister who grew up in New Franken, not far from "the Chapel" (now officially known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion).

"I knew about gardening because we always had one at home.  We had contract pickles and contract beans (for the cannery) besides our regular garden," she says.  Gardening "is just nice to do.  It gives me something to do in the summer, otherwise what does a person do?"

As she meticulously inspects each plant for ripe pickles, tomatoes or beans, we talk about the spirituality of gardening.  The solitude is an opportunity to appreciate God's creation from the buzzing of the crickets and bees, the honking of geese overhead or the pluckiness of wild turkeys in a nearby field.

"I can talk to the Lord all I want," says Sister Marie Goretti. "It (gardening) is down to earth, that's for sure.  But then that's the way I grew up, too, a big garden on a farm so you get used to 'earthy' things."

Her weeding, watering and harvesting work provides a hefty bounty for the 30 Sisters who live at the Convent, and any surplus is shared with Paul's Pantry, a local food pantry for the poor. Sister Marie Goretti doesn't keep track of how much she picks. The only measurement she is aware of is the five-gallon pail she easily fills each day during peak picking.  A quick check with the kitchen staff reveals staggering numbers so far for this season:  20 gallons of pickles, 10 gallons of beans and 400 pounds of tomatoes have been processed. Then there are the bell peppers, eggplant, muskmelons, cucumbers, zucchini and, finally, winter squash.

Sister Marie Goretti says credit for the harvest lies with many people.  There's the kitchen staff who determine each season what will be planted and how much.  Then there's the building and grounds manager, Dennis Mercier, who prepares the soil and plants the veggies so Sister Marie Goretti can hoe and weed as soon as she arrives in June.  She also gives credit to Sisters Barb Schmidt and Margaret Mary Halbach who help wash the produce before it's brought into the kitchen.  And, of course, the majority of the praise and thanksgiving belongs to God.

"I can't take credit for it," she says.  "All I did was pick it."

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The convent garden is where you'll find Sister Marie Goretti during the summer. The headline is from St. Francis' Canticle of the Creatures.