DRACUT -- It was humid and the temps often topped 100 degrees, but that didn't deter a group of 18 teens plus adults from St. Francis Parish in Dracut from making a difference to those in need in Mississippi who are still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Nearer to home, the humidity and warm temps also haven't deterred members of the St. Francis Parish Garden Ministry from volunteering hours of time since May to ensure their garden is abundant with tomatoes, cukes, peppers, squash and other produce destined for the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.

"This year our goal is to donate 1,000 pounds for families in need, including those who are homebound," said Cecilia Mancini, who founded the ministry in 2012.

The garden, planted in front of the rectory, carries on the original purpose of the 15 acres of church land. The expansive property was previously a farm owned by the Ogonowski family.

As further outreach, the garden's imperfect tomatoes are used to make sauce for the parish's Blessed Mother Teresa Homeless Ministry, which serves the homeless in Lowell each Saturday night, said Mancini.

"I've been amazed by the attention that Cecilia and Ellie and the others have put into growing this produce organically and lovingly," said the Rev. Seán Maher, a native of Ireland and the new administrator at St. Francis.

Maher also pointed out the cyclical nature of the process whereby the parish's Blessed Mother Teresa Homeless Ministry often receives food for the homeless from the food bank, while volunteer gardeners at St.


Francis grow food to donate to the food bank for families in need.

"Of course, it is God who inspires the work, who provides the growth, and even who lovingly receives our offering in the distressing disguise of the poor," said Maher. "Jesus is present."

Jessica Keefe and Emily Noel, coordinators of the Mississippi Mission Trip, have traveled to Mississippi six times, and each time they were in awe of the work that the teens do under often challenging circumstances.

"At home, sometimes they don't even want to take the trash out, but here they were willing to do whatever needed to be done," said Keefe, adding that they spent the past year raising funds for the trip.

While some sorted and folded clothing at a thrift shop, others renovated or repaired homes and yards. In both cases, said Keefe, by the end of the week the teens were amazed at what they accomplished.

In the thrift shop, "they didn't immediately feel they were doing all that much, but at the end of the week they saw that every little piece helped," Keefe said. "That made it even more powerful and in a way reflected the work of St. Francis of Assisi, our patron saint, caring for the poor, making sure they had clothes to wear."