Story and photos by Lara Pickford-Gordon
Vicar General Fr Martin Sirju has been sharing his gardening exploits on the Cathedral’s Facebook page. His joy evident as he shows fruits from his “beautiful, prolific, little paw paw tree” and his “garden’s New Year gift” of soursop and its promise of a delicious beverage.
The Catholic News visited Fr Sirju on Wednesday, January 19 to hear more about his “little Eden”, as he calls the garden.
Sometime after arriving at the Cathedral Presbytery in May 2018, Fr Sirju began clearing the weeds and pruning the trees, “giving them shape”. Sometime later, he wanted to do some planting, so he approached Carl Burgess for agriculture ideas and ways to uplift “the ambiance of the garden”.
“Carl came and he worked with me a few days giving me pieces of advice and showing me how to prepare the soil… where to put the plants. We have some concrete blocks and each cavity of the blocks you can grow something, so we started with some chadon beni and some chive and also some celery, and in the bigger area not within the blocks we had put some pimento plants and some ochroes.”
They worked together to get the soil ready for planting vegetables. Short-term crops were chosen because the yield could help reduce expense for the presbytery’s kitchen.
Fr Sirju further explained his dietary preference for more vegetables and having meat only for lunch, though he joked, “when I go out, I break the rules.” Burgess planted ferns in the garden near a statue of Mary. He advised Fr Sirju not to let the flowering plants grow beyond the height of the wall and to water the plants and trees including the banana trees regularly.
In March 2020, a curfew was in effect, in-person Masses and Services were suspended. “With time on my hands, like all priests, I decided to go back to my roots in a way,” he said reclining in a hammock which gives him a good view of the garden.
At the back of his mind also was Pope Francis’ call to care for our common home, Laudato Sí and Pope Benedict XVI’s view about restoring the backyard garden.
Other prompts were the man who visited monthly to clean the garden had stopped coming and the twice-monthly grasscutter for the front lawn and garden did not do landscaping.
Remembering his grandfather
Getting more involved in gardening evoked boyhood memories of his grandfather Sirju Seecharan, known as ‘Musu” in the community, Fullerton Village, Cedros.
“My grandfather was blind but very active. It did not stop him from having a life at all, and he would do a lot of planting. I remember us planting tomatoes, pigeon peas, corn, melongene, ground provisions. I remember digging into the ground for cassava and so on, so he had a pretty active life for a blind man but I was his eyes so I would be the one always with him.” He was about 10 or 11 years.
Input in the garden came from sacristan, Kelon Baptiste who did a lot of home gardening and shared ochro plants, patchoi, tomatoes and melongene.
April 2020, his gardening project was started. He praised the “excellent” landscaping done by altar server D’Andre Fraser, directing my attention to the neatly trimmed ixoras. The produce section of the garden has been doing well enough that he could share with parishioners.
Fr Sirju said “certain religious things” occurred to him as he worked in the garden—a garden puts the Christian in touch with the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis.
He elaborated: “There is a saying in theology that creation is the first act of salvation, that when God wanted to share Himself with us, He did not just start by creating us; but He created us as part of a wider reach and therefore the creation of something in which He would put us, came first.”
He learned that when he did not have time to check, and things looked fine in the garden, vines and weeds were making inroads. “You have to constantly be tending to it, like your spiritual life.”
The schedule of the Vicar General/Cathedral Administrator is busy so for 2022 he intends to “make a mental record, ‘every week you have to go into the garden’, at least twice.”
Gardening got him thinking about “anamnesis…a calling to mind…with a fruitful purpose”.
“I recall my grandfather and he gives life to me, to our home, by what he did, and he did not make his blindness an issue.” More than 30 years later a memory surfaced of the late Fr Henry Charles at the Seminary St John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs wiping a broad-leafed plant with a milky substance.
The substance turned out to be water and milk and as to why he did this, he told Fr Sirju, “Isn’t milk and water good for you!”. Fr Charles’ words return- “life generates life”.
“We say in the Creed all the time, ‘the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life’. We just think human life, we so arrogant but life is general,” Fr Sirju said.
There are people who talk to their plants and even named their plants. Fr Sirju asserted: “Once life touches life; some kind of communication starts, ‘how come you not bearing?’ you asking the plant that…you say ‘Good morning’ to your plants… People might think that is some kind of nascent paganism, but it isn’t, it’s rather Christian. In one of the Eucharistic prayers says, ‘All life, all holiness comes from you’”.
The garden is home for the birds whose nests are in the sapodilla tree and bougainvillea bush, while hummingbirds drop in to enjoy some nectar.
Fr Sirju stressed the importance of appreciating beauty in its varied forms. Beauty, he commented is one of the transcendental virtues with goodness and truth. But beauty is not perfection. The garden is beautiful but has flaws: the unwelcome pests and weeds.
There are also cuts and scrapes. He fell off a ladder that became unsteady because the soil was soft. “The plants saved me,” he said jovially.
Fr Sirju said beauty has a cost. “In the real world of people, there is no unscarred beauty, everyone is scarred to a greater or lesser extent.”