By Debbie Hovanasian
DRACUT -- When the Rev. Brian Mahoney, pastor of St. Francis Church in Dracut, looks out over the rolling fields in front of the rectory on Wheeler Road, he'll now see a little more than green grass. That might include a 150-pound pumpkin come the fall; plus, in the summer, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; tomatoes, marigolds, watermelons and more.
The St. Francis Garden Ministry started three years ago as a service project for 7th- and 8th-graders to benefit the local food pantries, said Cecilia Mancini, chairperson of the ministry. The first garden was 5 by 10 feet with 12 tomato plants and one gardener: Mancini, a religious education teacher and garden enthusiast.
Last year, the ministry grew substantially, enough so that they were able to donate "over 80 pounds of unblemished tomatoes and over 100 pounds of vegetables all together to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank," Mancini said.
They also made sauce with some of the blemished tomatoes, which was frozen and used at church functions throughout the year.
This year, says Mancini, the ministry has grown to 32 members. The garden has grown right along with it. It's now 55 by 85 feet with dozens of different varieties of tomatoes, marigolds, swiss chard, zucchini and even a water collection system.
This week they'll be adding eggplant and peppers. All unblemished produce will again be donated to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Mancini said, adding that they expect to double the amount donated last year.
Even those "imperfect" fruits of their labor will be put to good use.
"We will again take the imperfect tomatoes and make them into sauce and freeze to use for various church events," she said. "We also hope to sell bunches of herbs and flowers later in the summer to help us offset some of our expenses."
For more information on the ministries at St. Francis, visit www.saintfrancis.net.