Parishes use growing things to teach mercy

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, November 9, 2017

Parishes use growing things to teach mercy

Father Ken Fleck uses gardening and cooking lessons to teach about mercy.
Father Ken Fleck, pastor, works with students at St. George School in Tinley Park making pies from the parish apple crop on Oct. 3. This is the 15th season of Fleck’s Seeds of Faith —Harvest of Hope, a program that invites students and parishioners at St. George to grow crops for themselves and for the local food pantry. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

On a cloudy day early in October, about 10 eighth-graders gathered around the kitchen table in the rectory at St. George Parish, Tinley Park.

The pastor, Father Ken Fleck, assigned tasks and dispensed utensils and advice as he shepherded the students through the process of assembling a one-crust apple pie using a combination of apples grown on the parish campus and canned apple-pie filling.

After one student put the pie in the oven while another slid a baking sheet underneath it to catch any drips, Fleck reached into a cabinet and pulled out a finished pie.

“Just like on the cooking shows,” he joked. “The magic of TV and all that.”

Before the group trooped down to the meeting room in the rectory’s lower level, Fleck told the boys that they should learn how to cook — and not just pie. “Girls like a guy who can cook,” he said. “Even more than a guy with muscles.”

A girl interjected, “True.”

“Because when you can cook together, you’re partners in the kitchen,” Fleck continued.

Downstairs, the students joined the rest of the eighth-graders, who were gathered around tables preparing to peel and slice the rest of the apple harvest. The sliced apples were rinsed in a mixture of lemon juice and water to be made into pies later. The eighth graders will decide what to do with them —perhaps make them for a Thanksgiving meal at a soup kitchen, or use them as thank-you gift for the teachers.

“This is pretty fun,” eighth-grader Jaclyn Tucker said. 

“We work a lot in the garden, too,” classmate Nick Pelini said. “It’s better than being in class.”

Fleck wasn’t done offering life lessons. He picked up an apple that the students had discarded. It had a few big brown spots, he noted, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t use it at all.

“There’s good flesh here,” he said. “You just have to cut out the bad parts. Isn’t that like all of us? We all have our faults and flaws, we all have our sins, but we also carry God’s grace with us. We just have to work at getting rid of the bad parts.”

The apple trees — Fleck has planted one for each graduating class since he’s been at St. George — are only one way the parish uses growing things to both teach and serve the community. The biggest is perhaps the Seeds of Faith — Harvest of Hope program, in which he grows about 300 tomato and pepper plants in two greenhouses and buys about 1,000 more tiny seedlings each spring and gives them to the school students to nurture.

When they’re ready to be planted outdoors, the parish makes them available to parishioners after Mass. The parishioners have a choice: they can make a donation to summer youth ministry programs in exchange for plants, or they can take some for free. But if they don’t make a donation, Fleck said, they are expected to raise more than one plant, keeping the produce from half of what they take for their own families and donating the produce from the other half to the Tinley Park community food pantry.

“There’s a lot of lessons about the spiritual and corporal works of mercy,” Fleck said. “And the opportunity to care for the poor.”

This summer, between the produce grown on parish grounds and produce donated by parishioners, St. George accounted for 1,452 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables going to the food pantry.

St George is not the only parish that uses its resources to grow food for the hungry. St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lake Zurich has been running a jubilee garden on land owned by the late Bill Haberstroh for 19 years, with volunteers meeting every Saturday during the growing season.

Coordinator Janet Gozzola said the garden yielded 1,977 pounds of produce in 2016. She hasn’t tallied the 2017 totals yet.

Gozzola plans to step down after 15 years this year, but she is eager to help someone else learn the ropes and Haberstroh’s heirs have promised use of the land for at least a few more years, she said.

On the day the students at St. George School learned to make apple pie, each received a small portion of the finished product before Fleck led them outside to one of the garden patches that abuts the school. He had them dig holes to bury the apple cores and peels, along with the newspaper that lined the tables while they worked.

The simple form of composting makes food for worms, and between the worms and the natural decomposition of the vegetable matter, it will create rich soil in time for planting next spring, Fleck said.

“The worms will love you and they will work for you,” Fleck said.

St. George School Principal Charlotte Pratl said that Fleck’s lessons are valuable, both for the values he teaches and the academics. “There’s measuring, chemistry, composting. There’s all kinds if STEM concepts here.”

Fleck said he has done similar projects and taught similar lessons at every parish and school where he’s been assigned since being ordained in 1976. A student from one of his previous schools was recently named the best new chef in Singapore, he told the St. George students, so they can think of feeding people as a possible career as well.

On their way back inside, the students stopped to check out a giant pumpkin, the largest in the pumpkin patch, Fleck had promised that one to the student council for a weight-guessing contest. The student council had already designated that proceeds would go to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.

Fleck peered at a bed of radishes planted by the kindergartners and first-graders the first week of school.

“They’re almost ready to harvest,” he said. “One year, someone went over them with the tiller and I had to go out and buy a few bunches and put them in the ground. I don’t want to discourage the kids.”