Every weekend, rows of fresh produce line tables and rolling carts in the gathering area of Seven Dolors Parish in Albany. After Masses, parishioners choose what they want from the ever-changing variety of fruits and vegetables to create healthy meals at home.
It’s a farmers market, but not your typical gathering of farmers selling their produce. Almost all of what fills the tables and carts each week comes from parishioners sharing what they can’t use from their own gardens.
A free will offering is all that’s asked in return, with the proceeds going to the parish’s general operating budget.
“I’m pleased as punch when I see people taking a few potatoes, a few tomatoes, a few beans, and the next week they are back to do the same thing,” said Benedictine Sister Alice Imdieke, organizer of the market.
In July 2013, Sister Alice and parishioner Mary Kohorst were helping another parishioner by tending to her garden while she was having some health issues. They realized the woman had much more produce than one person needed and talked together about what they could do with the surplus.
Sister Alice had previously thought about the concept of a farmers market — where people donate the excess from their gardens. She and Kohorst decided it was something they could do.
They took buckets of strawberries and piles of sweetcorn to the church and set them out for people to take.
Not only did people take from what was offered, but they started bringing surplus from their own gardens.
Parishioners Mary and Steve Watry bring vegetables to the market regularly from their three-acre garden on the edge of town.
“We just like to share because we have so much, there’s no way we can use it all,” Mary Watry said. “This time of year is the most fun because you work so hard all year and then you get to share with others.”
Starting and organizing the market was a big commitment and a community effort.
“I have the gift of time and I’m using that. Everyone else is using their gifts and we’re putting them all together,” Sister Alice said.
“If it wasn’t for Mary [Kohorst] we probably wouldn’t have it. She spurs me on,” she said. “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a win-win because we win by giving it, and people win by taking it.”
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis encourages us to include everyone and work for the common good, Sister Alice said.
In the 2015 encyclical, the pope writes about the interconnectedness of humanity and the environment. Caring for God’s creation by gardening and then sharing the fruits of the labor fits that theme, Sister Alice said.
“Many elderly parishioners don’t have the space or the ability to garden, so the farmers market has met a great need for them,” Kohorst said.
And, in that way, Sister Alice also sees the market as a work of mercy, providing fresh produce to some that may not otherwise have access to it.
“My greatest joy is to see these older people who cannot have a garden,” she said. “One woman told me that half of the joy of coming to Mass is coming to the market.”
The beauty of it, too, Sister Alice said, is that when the end of the season comes along, whatever is left can be made into something that can also be sold at the market.
Volunteers take produce home to can and to make pickles, jams, pies and even pumpkin soup.
“Sister Alice’s personal outreach through the farmers market encourages all of us to meet the needs of the body of Christ,” said Kohorst. “And it all started with our gardens.”