God’s in the soil

Posted by Christine, April 10, 2013

Tom Henry of the Toledo Blade profiles God’s work through a nun’s hands:

BRYAN — As she sticks her hands into topsoil, Sister Rita Wienken is oblivious to the chill that lingers after months of frost.

She feels the warmth of God’s love.

“Soil is the skin of Earth and is alive with thousands of species whose relationships with one another provide sustenance for all who call Earth home,” she says in the mission statement of her new consulting business.

Sister Rita is a 62-year-old Franciscan nun, a devout follower of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century patron saint who preached compassion for the poor, respect for animals, and environmental stewardship. That saint is the one from whom newly installed Pope Francis took his name.

The Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin, which she entered in 1972, reinterpreted the writings of St. Francis in the early 1990s and came away with a stronger vision of his affection for nature.

A former elementary school teacher and two-time recipient of peace awards, Sister Rita grew up on a farm. At the Tiffin convent, she founded the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center, which opened in 1999, and the Seeds of Hope farm, a co-op that began in 2005.

Now, she’s making a name for herself in rural Williams County, where she landed after a one-year sabbatical in South Carolina and what she describes as a short, but highly influential retreat in the Wyoming wilderness.

Sister Rita has created a hands-on consulting business to help area farmers be as productive as they can but with fewer chemicals.

“I need my hands in dirt every day,” she mused recently. “I have soil in my veins.”

To the nun, soil is not ordinary dirt. It’s an integral part of the circle of life.

Her goal is to take that message deeper into the region’s heartland, going from site to site in her fuel-efficient hybrid car.

Sister Rita is planting gardens at a former church in Bryan that is being resurrected as a restaurant and microbrewery to be called Father John's and the Drunken Monk. Sister Rita is planting gardens at a former church in Bryan that is being resurrected as a restaurant and microbrewery to be called Father John’s and the Drunken Monk. THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Setting down roots

From a tiny Bryan farmhouse, she runs her farm-consulting business for anyone from large growers to neighborhood gardeners trying to make the most of their land. For the latter, she has set up a grid to demonstrate a square-foot method of farming which does what the name implies — growing crops on every usable square foot on land, even vertically.

Besides ample room for gardening, her new residence has a rolling hill and lots of green space near a creek. She wants to host area children for day camps or education programs.

She is scrappy and innovative with her limited budget. She loves to repurpose items that people are ready to discard, such as leftover wood boards and material like Plexiglas that can be used as plant cover.

“I’m a Dumpster diver,” the spry nun chuckles.

A year after relocating in Bryan, Sister Rita’s a familiar face to area locals.

Bill Pepple, United Way of Williams County executive director, thinks of her as an important link in that county’s emerging eat-local movement. A lot of Williams County land is used by corporate agriculture, which Mr. Pepple said has led to voids in farming education even in such a rural area.

“We’ve lost a lot of the skill sets,” he said. The nun’s work can help the United Way reach out to more impoverished families with better access to affordable food, a problem that Mr. Pepple said is hardly confined to Toledo and other large cities.

She will be part of the local United Way’s second hunger summit on April 25.

She has become an important part of All Things Food, a natural-foods store that opened near Bryan’s downtown square 18 months ago.

Owner Monique “Mo” Tressler said the store is promoting locally grown items, such as those available through the Black Swamp Local Food & Farm Co-op.

“She respects what God has given us and is not working against it,” Ms. Tressler said.

Sister Rita has created a consulting business to show farmers in Williams County how to reduce chemical use without sacrificing yields. Sister Rita has created a consulting business to show farmers in Williams County how to reduce chemical use without sacrificing yields. Enlarge


Tiffin Franciscan nuns avoid the organic label. To them, it has been manipulated for marketing. They look to see if products are listed as chemical-free.

Sister Rita admits that getting some farmers to go chemical-free requires, well, a leap of faith.

She said yields can be as good or better than traditional farming, with better-tasting food. For some, the best strategy might be devoting a portion of land to chemical-free farming and seeing how it goes, she said.

“The biggest stumbling block is getting other farmers to be a support system. They need those other farmers to provide that leap of faith,” she said.

She is working at Millermeade Farms near Bryan, where owners Gail and Jeff Dick raise anything from crops to hedgehogs. While on the farm, Sister Rita is teaching the couple’s five children how to grow spinach, carrots, beets, tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables.

The most ambitious project she’s affiliated with is a soon-to-open restaurant-microbrewery at South Beech and West Butler streets, a historic-yet-abandoned church with an impressive Gothic Revival structure that is getting a new life as a business establishment to be called Father John’s and the Drunken Monk.

‘There will be beer’

Described by a beer blogger as “a jaw-dropping, heavenly first” for the Ohio brewing industry, the project calls for using a stately 1895 church in multiple ways, such as a community gathering place, wedding chapel, pottery shop, eatery, and place of social fellowship with themes that promote religion and goodwill.

The owner, Dr. John Trippy of Bryan, said some of the restaurant’s meat will come from the nearby Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve near Fremont, Ind., which he also owns. It has about 250 bison.

Sister Rita has heirloom tomato seedlings started  in her Bryan home. The Franciscan nun sees soil as an integral part of the circle of life. Sister Rita has heirloom tomato seedlings started in her Bryan home. The Franciscan nun sees soil as an integral part of the circle of life. THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Patrons will be allowed to make and bottle their own brew, stroll gardens, or peer at the chapel’s ornate stained-glass windows. A large courtyard enclosed by a stone fence has multiple open-air crosses built into it.

Sister Rita has been recruited to grow chemical-free vegetables in garden beds around the perimeter of the stone fence. “I hope it’s a place to truly have community fellowship,” Dr. Trippy said. “Yes, there will be beer. But I want this to be a sacred place.”

Dr. Trippy, a retired oral and maxillofacial surgeon, also owns the house where Sister Rita lives.

He said it was serendipity how they met: A little more than a year ago, he had planned a hiking expedition in Nepal, where he’d hiked before. Then, for reasons he can’t explain, he changed his mind and went to Rome to retrace the steps of St. Francis, whose friar life had fascinated him. Dr. Trippy said he envisioned the church he bought — one formerly inhabited by Methodists and Baptists — to be a restaurant-microbrewery with an on-site garden managed by monks.

He didn’t get his monks, but he got Sister Rita. After he returned to the area, Dr. Trippy heard a keynote speech Sister Rita delivered at Northwest State Community College in Archbold, part of a hunger conference called “Everybody Eats.” He was so impressed he asked for a show of hands among people who wanted Sister Rita to become part of their community. Naturally, most raised their hands.

“It seems like this is too God-driven to be a coincidence,” Dr. Trippy said.

Ms. Tressler said she had similar thoughts at All Things Food, where she’d been looking for someone with Sister Rita’s farming background before their chance encounter. “I’m so glad she’s part of our community,” Ms. Tressler said.

The store owner said she became interested in chemical-free food after battling health problems in 2006.

“The closer we can get our food to the way our creator designed it, the healthier we can be,” Ms. Tressler said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or  419-724-6079 .

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