BY TOM DALTON
---- — Salem’s homeless shelter owns a complex of buildings at the former St. Mary’s Italian Church property on Margin Street that it calls the “Seeds of Hope” campus.
The name never seemed as appropriate as it did yesterday when Lifebridge, the shelter operators, announced plans to build the “Seeds of Hope Garden,” a large vegetable and flower plot.
The garden will be located on a sunny patch of land where, in 1945, Italian immigrants dedicated a religious stone grotto, a copy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
Shelter staff and clients intend to plant seeds in this once-sacred soil that, it is hoped, will produce more than just food for the dinner table and flowers for vases.
The garden will be tended by men and women staying at the shelter, as well as former shelter clients who live in apartment buildings on the site.
“It will give our folks an opportunity to get out there and engage in a project they can be fulfilled by,” said Mark Cote, executive director of Lifebridge.
Cote said he is confident that current and former shelter clients will “take ownership” of the garden.
One already has.
Paul Sumares, who lives in Lifebridge housing, tended to the grotto for years with a friend, takes care of a traffic island sponsored by the shelter and now is busy making plans for the new garden.
“Now that (the grotto) is gone, let’s do something with it,” Sumares said. “What better thing can you do than grow some food and take it over to Lifebridge?
“I also think the people may feel a sense of pride — ‘Hey, this is mine.’”
Plans for the garden are not yet final.
Karen Andrew, the kitchen manager, said she wants to grow herbs, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables she can use at meals, along with flowers.
“We need produce,” she said. “We go through so much, and we rely on the generosity of others.”
Lifebridge serves three meals a day to anywhere from 60 to more than 100 people. It does 7,000 meals a month. And not all the dinner guests are from the shelter — some seniors come to eat, Cote said.
Food is donated from a variety of sources, but Andrew also spends several hundred dollars every month.
The Seeds of Hope Garden will supplement produce that is purchased and put fresh vegetables — really fresh vegetables — on the dinner table during the summer months.
“I’m excited,” Andrew said. “I’m really excited.”
Jonathan Lukens, a professor at Salem State University and Lifebridge board member, is working with Andrew and Sumares to assemble a committee to design the land. Any local gardeners who want to help are encouraged to contact the shelter, Cote said.
Lifebridge estimates startup costs at $3,500 and is hoping community donations of seeds, equipment or money will help cover the costs.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.