Parish paradise yields food for the poor and fellowship for the faithful
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to the Leaven
Topeka — When Shirley Mitchell recently lamented the absence of homegrown tomatoes at a chain grocery store in Topeka, a fellow shopper proffered her a mysterious tip.
“Mother Teresa has them,” she said.
Fortunately, Mitchell, a parishioner of St. Stanislaus in Rossville, soon recalled seeing a road sign advertising Mother Teresa’s Garden.
And she was intrigued.
The following Saturday, she ventured forth.
And there, to her delight, she found far more than fresh tomatoes.
More than tomatoes
At this amazing little market, on the grounds of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish, a community has grown up around the business of selling produce.
People talk and laugh as they inspect the myriad of vegetables, fruits and canned goods.
They sip cups of fresh coffee and share homemade pastries.
“Last Saturday, we made bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches,” said Dale Strathman, who’s been the driving force behind the market since it began four years ago.
Committed to helping the poor with profits, as its namesake would wish, Mother Teresa’s Garden sold enough produce during its first year to make a $1,500 donation to Topeka Rescue Mission.
“We were really grateful for what we got that first year,” said Strathman’s wife Vera, the market’s cashier and accountant. “We never dreamed we’d get very much more.”
But the following year they raised $4,000; the year after that, $8,000.
And this year, during the hottest, driest summer on record in Topeka, the group has raised more than $13,000 to feed the homeless.
“I think God is doing wonderful things to help us get to this point,” Vera said. “I never dreamed in my life that we could do so much with so little.”
And to think it all started from then-pastor Father Bill Bruning’s simple request to Strathman to plant a garden at the rectory.
“I guess he knew I was a farm boy,” said Strathman, by way of explanation.
That farm boy proceeded to plant a 30-by-40-foot plot with radishes, spinach, green beans, potatoes, zucchini, corn and tomatoes.
The little plot soon yielded so much that Father Bruning suggested that parishioners set up a market to sell the extra produce. Strathman liked the idea so much, he offered to contribute vegetables from his own garden.
Parishioners Ken Stuke and Deon Zachariasen joined the effort, and the core group of Mother Teresa’s Garden was formed.
The first order of business was to determine what they would do with their profits and any produce that didn’t sell.
“That’s when I brought up the Topeka Rescue Mission,” said Strathman.
For years, Strathman had been taking fresh produce from his own garden to the homeless mission run by Barry Feaker.
“I’ve known Barry for probably 20 years,” said Strathman. “And they don’t get any funds whatsoever from the United Way.”
But the shelter’s need, he knew, was great — and rising.
“The number of homeless people has just expanded tremendously,” said Strathman, “especially since the economy has gotten so bad.”
So the group agreed that donating to the rescue mission was a perfect way to continue Mother Teresa’s mission.
“All the proceeds, other than the seed money — literally, the seed money — go to the homeless,” said Father Bruning.
It takes a village
Over the next four years, as word spread and Mother Teresa’s Garden group grew, Father Bruning’s little plot was joined by seven plentiful gardens throughout the parish.
Judy Jones and her husband Richard plant three acres of corn and donate all of it.
Parishioner Lee Sack has a business not far from the church with extra land attached to its property.
Annette Martin donates a plot for planting potatoes.
And perhaps the most notable of Mother Teresa’s gardens is the hothouse on Maurice Skoch’s property.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a pilot program I heard about,” said Skoch. “It’s designed to incorporate a hothouse to determine additional length of growing season in this climate.”
Mother Teresa Parish has the only hothouse in Shawnee County. It will be certified organic in the next year.
Beginning in early spring, it’s a group effort to plant and care for the gardens.
“I will send out an email to all the members,” said Strathman. “And we will set a schedule for our planting days – what we will be planting and in whose garden.”
Parishioners Ted Appelhanz, Mike Holthaus and Skoch provide the large equipment to plow, disk and prepare the land for planting the seeds and to till and cultivate the crops.
“Then we have Father Bob Hasenkamp,” said Strathman. “He lives in a retirement community and he comes out to help us hoe and plant.
“He’s an old farm boy and just loves being a part of the group.”
Stuke, who is also retired, does most of the watering during the day.
“He’s been a tremendous help by using soaker hoses when we’re not available during the day,” said Strathman. “And he’ll move them from garden to garden.”
The produce market opens in mid-June, and the group joins forces to harvest, store and deliver produce from its seven gardens.
The newest member, Ed Warner, has been surprised and delighted with the experience.
“It’s probably one of the better things I’ve done,” he said. “It’s one of these deals where your doctor says, ‘You’ve got a garden. That’s good!’
“Now I’ve got seven times as much exercise.”
Picnic tables fill the pavilion where the market is open, and each is overflowing with fresh produce, as well as baked and canned goods donated by parishioners.
Holthaus and Appelhanz have chickens and provide eggs for the market.
“And Dwayne and Sue Cramer do a tremendous amount of canning,” said Strathman. “This year, they brought probably 300 jars of canned goods — jellies, pickles, Bloody Mary mix, all kinds of different items.”
Parishioner Delores Solis also loves to can and brings a case of salsa to the market each week.
Volunteers who aren’t so handy in the field, work the market.
“They like to socialize,” said Warner. “And an important part of it is socializing.”
“That’s because we’re not just trying to sell a product,” said Strathman. “We’re trying to build community.”
“The parishioners know their mission statement and the pillars of their parish are formation, prayer, hospitality, service,” said Father Bruning. “The hospitality? They take that seriously.
“It’s like a little family down there.”
“Father Bill [Bruning] used to come on a regular basis,” said Strathman. “And Father Tom [Aduri] — now that he is pastor of our parish — when he’s in town, he’s been there every week.
“So customers actually also see the pastor, the leader of our parish, intermixing with the crowd and welcoming them.”
And this little family is as interested in spreading the word of God as it is in marketing fresh produce.
“That’s another key element of the market — evangelization,” said Strathman. “If we can get one person to come back who has left the faith, Mother Teresa would be so happy.
“She’ll be smiling.”
Anything left at the end of Saturday’s market is delivered to Topeka Rescue Mission.
“I wish everyone could experience the delivery of that produce,” said Strathman. “They recognize my truck whenever I come. They’ll come out and help me unload.
“And numerous times someone will say, ‘Do you mind if I take a cucumber?’ And they’ll just wipe it off and start eating it right there.”
The market usually runs through the parish jamboree celebration in September, when all the profits are presented to the mission.
“Barry is always in attendance at our outdoor Mass to accept the check,” said Strathman. “And [the celebrant] always asks everyone who contributed to the farmer’s market to stand.
“And 75 percent of the parish stands — because they were either a customer, or they helped out in some fashion.”
“But the people who get the most benefit out of the farmers’ market are the people who are involved in doing it,” claimed Holthaus, “because they develop that sense of family and friendship — and that’s what your church better be built on.”
Be a Part of Mother Teresa’s Garden
Mother Teresa’s Garden would love to expand, but needs more volunteers and is interested in getting other local parishes involved.
Contact Dale Strathman for more information at (785) 286-2879.