With so many news reports about crime and destruction, it's easy to forget that there are good people quietly doing good deeds. A tiny farm called Villa Maria straddles the Pennsylvania/Ohio border and houses one such community of selfless people. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the small convent is home to a 300-acre organic farm that supplies produce for local charities.
According to the Post-Gazette, five paid employees and "an army of volunteers" work to "help the sisters accomplish their mission of feeding the poor and teaching how to live in harmony with God's creation." The nuns have been on the site since 1864, when they founded a hospital to treat smallpox victims with herbs. The sisters have been farming the land ever since.
Originally, the land was unwanted, supposedly unusable wetlands transformed under the careful, patient hands of the French sisters, according to the newspaper. The article mentions that until the '60s, the nuns raised livestock and produce, with the farm supporting 600 sisters. Villa Maria stopped these practices when crises struck both the American Catholic Church and agriculture industry.
So currently, the farm operates under land manager emeritus Frank Romeo, who has worked there for nearly 70 years. Romeo has seen the farm transform from its heyday to its current status, and saw the beginning of the outreach in which the sisters give food to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
In addition to physical food donations, the Villa specializes in educational programming. Led by Sister Barbara O'Donnell, the Education for the Earth campaign unites the sisters' "mission of cultivating the virtue of humility ... to their cultivation of the land." The article quotes O'Donnell saying, "We want to care for [this Earth] in a sustainable way, so that we can have a healthy habitat and healthy soil for healthy food for future generations of all species."
Educational programming at Villa Maria teaches visitors how some critters, like praying mantis, eat harmful pests that might destroy the crops. But it also focuses on the union of environmentalism and faith. Visitors learn how gardening is a spiritual act and how to use organic methods. The Post-Gazette mentions that the farm is not certified organic because the sisters cannot afford the certification fees, but Romeo insists their methods have been organic since the beginning.
The story mentions USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services employee Ed Petrus, who talks about the sisters' eagerness to adopt the new regulations from his organization. Petrus hosts retreats at Villa Maria to demonstrate practices for other growers.
Another employee of the Villa, John Moreira, is director of the farm's operations and specializes in maintaining the old-growth forest on the property. The story describes how Moreira uses his education and experience to ward off blight and preserve chestnut and hickory trees throughout the Villa. His work has proved to be especially important the past two years because tomato blight struck the region so heavily.
The article mentions that potatoes are the largest donation crop for the sisters and, since this vegetable is susceptible to the same blight as tomatoes, Moreira has his work cut out for him using organic farming techniques — in this case, crop rotation and planting the potatoes a mile away from last year's location — to save the harvest.
The service aspect of Villa Maria comes not only from the donated food but also from the service retreats hosted on the land. Volunteers use their vacations to farm for 10 or more hours per day while they study with O'Donnell. The sisters also work with youth offenders from the inner city as an alternative to incarceration and trade other volunteers food and housing for their work laboring on the land.
Each season, the results are thousands of pounds of food donations and hundreds of lives enhanced by service in the Villa's fields. The article ends by describing the sisters' concerns for the land after they pass away. According to the article, "they want to ensure that others — even if they aren't sisters — will carry on their legacy."
The Villa has a market barn where visitors can purchase produce as well as wreaths or hand-made oils produced by the retired sisters. Additionally, more than 1,200 people attend their annual Harvest Day Celebration on Oct. 2 to "thank God for the harvest and to thank the volunteers for their labor" over a meal produced entirely on site. The article ends by saying the sisters love this annual celebration because it allows them to demonstrate how the land, which was a gift to them initially, can continue to give gifts to everyone.