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Seed project Providence Sisters’ gift to community

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul based in Kingston, Ont., have found a unique way to honour creation through their Heirloom Seed Project.
On a blustery Saturday in mid-March, hundreds of people came to the Sisters of Providence’s property in Kingston for the annual Seedy Saturday to swap the latest heirloom seeds.

Among them were organic gardeners looking for locally grown seeds of hardy, tasty vegetables that have adapted to the local environment, and a growing group of “seed savers” who have caught a passion for learning how to gather and preserve seeds from the vegetables they grow.

From a refurbished barn on the property, the in-house gardener Cate Henderson not only supervises the organic gardens on the property and the seed saving activities the barn now accommodates, but also holds training seminars, including a series of webinars now underway.

“We’ve really started thinking about seeds as just commodities, these little things that we buy, and once we have planted them, we forget about them,” said Henderson, who has been working as the sister’s in-house gardener and seed-saving expert since 2008. Seeds grow our food, “they are baby plants,” she said. “For thousands of years of agriculture, human beings wouldn’t have lost that connection, they would have known to let some of their vegetables go to seed.”

With the growth of hybrid seeds that do not reproduce, and a shrinking of agricultural diversity, protection of heirloom seeds is an important part of the local food movement, Henderson said. “If local food is more nutritious and tasty, how much more nutritious and delicious and tasty if it is grown from seed that is from here.”

But Henderson sees the loss of participation in the full cycle of seed to harvest as a spiritual loss. “It’s actually something that would have enriched our lives as people who eat food, to give us what is missing, a real bond with the plant, with creation.

As Seedy Saturday proves, the seed saving movement is growing and it’s catching, she said.

These activities connect the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul’s motherhouse with the local area, drawing people from as far away as Toronto and beyond. It also fulfils dreams and creative visioning begun in the 1990s concerning what the sisters could do with the 30 acres of land they have inside the City of Kingston. The congregation, founded in 1861 by a group of nuns from the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, now has 69 sisters who are getting on in age.

Sister Jeannette Filthaut, who now lives in Edmonton with a Providence mission there, says the vision began with the every-four-year chapter meeting in 1994. She had been elected to leadership and one of the five directional statements for the leadership team concerned ecology.

They determined to work within the areas of ecology and health; ecology and the work environment; ecofeminism and eco-spirituality, she said. So they began dreaming: “Let’s do something with our back field.”

“We were trying to promote our rediscovery of our spiritual relationship with each and the earth, through ongoing education and action in those areas,” she said.

At first they decided to start an heirloom garden. They obtained seeds from some farmers they knew and started the garden out by the gazebo. Filthaut said it was a form of recycling or re-integrating, because years ago the sisters had orchards and gardens and even kept horses on the land.

The next year, they planted a larger garden with the help of a friend who had come from El Salvador and his family. They were able to grow food not only for themselves, but for the local soup kitchen and food bank.

The motherhouse was undergoing some renovation at the time. Filthaut was out walking with the maintenance director. They passed by an assortment of old windows that had been removed because the parts to restore them were no longer available. “Could we build a greenhouse with them?” Filthaut asked. Thus, the sisters had a greenhouse recycling their old windows attached to the garage on the property where they could start seedlings early in the season for replanting in their gardens.

The farming couple who had originally given the sisters their first heirloom seeds asked to grow their seeds out in this greenhouse. Eventually Robert and Carol Mouck, who lived out near Belleville, “let go of their big farm and came to work with us,” said Filthaut.

The Moucks were seed savers who transformed the back of the garage, which had been a room for men who worked on the grounds to have coffee, into a place to store seeds.

The next thing the sisters decided was to renovate the 100-year-old barn on the property. It now houses the heirloom seed sanctuary, provides a place on the upper level to dry the seeds, and offers space for gatherings such as the popular annual Seedy Saturdays, lectures and workshops.

The sisters hosted their first Tomato Tasting Day in 1999 and their first ecological gardening workshop in 2000. Filthaut said they began to have large crowds coming to learn how to save seeds.

At the same time, the gardens are not only producing seed, but food for the needy, for the sisters and for the farmers themselves. “We kept doing teaching, either in the barn or in the spirituality centre on how to save seed and why it is important,” she said. “It was our reconnection with the earth.”

“Because of our mission, this was our way of taking care of the earth and being more responsible for our environment,” she said. “Taking care of the earth is also taking care of ourselves.”

When Filthaut recalls the dreaming they did, she thinks the dream “took on its own life.”

“If something is meant to happen, it happens and goes beyond where your dream takes you, the dream was more than you realized,” she said.

The dream includes a “respectful consideration for our land, not just for ourselves but for those who come after us,” she said. The sisters have made a commitment as well to plant 300 trees, of which 200 are now planted.

Filthaut said many of us have lost the value of creation and of our participation as co-creators.

Henderson became part of the staff at the Providence motherhouse when the Moucks retired. She had a degree in community development studies and as part of obtaining her degree worked on a sustainable agricultural project there. Having been raised on a farm in Peterborough Country, Henderson decided she wanted to do that kind of work in Canada.

She went back to school at Guelph University where she obtained a diploma in the horticulture program. At first she was working more in ornamental and organic gardens, but when her now 19-year-old daughter was born, she became more interested in growing organic food. She began giving workshops on organic gardening. All of her training and experience “came together when the job came up.”

She has found her work with the Providence sisters, who help with the gardening, seed sorting and saving and other activities, the “right combination of gardening plus leading workshops and presenting.”

Raised in the United Church — her grandfather was a minister, as well as her father in law — Henderson said she has always had a strong spiritual interest. Thus she finds working for the sisters deeply fulfilling spiritually and appreciates how inclusive they are.

“It’s been lovely for me,” Henderson said. “They are beautiful women and it’s a lovely environment, there’s no pressure to produce large quantities of anything, fast or efficiently.”

“This is definitely part of the slow food movement,” she said. “I get to do things thoughtfully and prayerfully and that enables better quality seed in the end, better quality food, better quality relationship with the land and with the plants.”

The Heirloom Seed Project has expanded to include networks such as the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative that now co-sponsors Seedy Saturdays. Henderson and the sisters also work with the National Farmers’ Union’s Food Down the Road, which helps farmers grow local food.

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