Bishop Robert J. Brennan pets a horse named Oreo on a family farm in the Diocese of Columbus. Photo by Jerry Freewalt

The Blessing of Farms

Encountering faith and family in the rural community

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In the Book of Genesis, tending the garden was humanity’s first vocation. Food is essential for life. We all eat. Each of us benefits from the fruits of a farmer’s labor. Yet, how often do we take this for granted and not express our care, concern and gratitude for those cultivating God’s creation? The blessing of farms presents a unique opportunity for the Church to do just that.

I had the pleasure of accompanying Bishop Robert J. Brennan as he blessed family farms in Ohio’s 23-county Diocese of Columbus on May 15, 2020, the feast day of St. Isidore the Farmer. Although Bishop Brennan was recently installed as the bishop of Brooklyn, I can assure you he will never forget his encounters with Catholics who work on these farms.

Bishop Brennan Blessing Couple
Bishop Robert J. Brennan blesses Dennis and Laura Corcoran on their family farm near Chillicothe, Ohio, on the feast of St. Isidore the Farmer. Photo by Jerry Freewalt

A native of the Bronx and raised on Long Island, New York, Bishop Brennan sensed the strong rural values of faith, family and community as he made his pastoral visits. He witnessed firsthand the importance of the Church’s connectedness with rural communities.

We began the feast day on the lawn of Sacred Hearts Church just outside of Cardington. On the breezy spring morning, surrounded by picturesque farm fields, Bishop Brennan was welcomed by pastor Father Thomas Buffer and a handful of socially distanced farm couples abiding by the state’s COVID-19 order. He listened to the couples about the joys of farm living and the rich family history of their land.

The bishop also heard about several challenges. In the previous year, heavy rains in the spring resulted in lower yields. The COVID-19 pandemic caused additional difficulties due to reduced capacity at meatpacking plants to process livestock.

After listening, Bishop Brennan blessed the fields and the couples, and spoke about Sts. Isidore and Maria. “This is a married couple who really achieved great sanctity and are a model for all of us,” he explained. He talked about their difficult work and the challenges of tending the land, but also about their strong faith and care for each other. “I realize how so many families are at the heart of the farming of our lands.”

The Ewing Farm

After leaving Sacred Hearts Church, Bishop Brennan drove back to St. Joseph Cathedral to celebrate the noon weekday Mass, centering his homily on Sts. Isidore and Maria and the farm families of the diocese. We then drove to rural Madison County to visit four farm families, each with unique agricultural livelihoods.

The first stop was the Ewing family farm known as Somerford Gardens. Established in 2016, the family produces handcrafted organic vegetables through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). They sell their produce by delivering organic certified produce to customers’ homes.

The couple and their children led Bishop Brennan on a farm tour highlighting their chickens and rows of vegetables using sustainable practices. After the bishop’s blessing, the Ewing’s made sure he did not leave empty-handed by sending a shopping bag filled with jars of honey, maple syrup and produce from their gardens.

The Furbee Farm

The Furbee family farm, consisting of 325 acres of land filled with fields, cattle, sheep, horses, rabbits and chickens was the next stop. The family led the bishop on an exciting tour of the farm along with their pastor, Father Michael Hinterschied, and Deacon Dan Hann of St. Patrick Church, London.

A highlight was watching farmer Matt Furbee give commands to the family’s smart and hardworking Border collie guide sheep in the pasture. Bishop Brennan also learned about the children’s 4-H projects. Everybody on the farm loved watching him bottle-feed their young calf named Blaze.

Diane Furbee expressed her appreciation for Bishop Brennan’s visit. “I’m so honored for the bishop to take the time to come out and bless our farm,” she said. “It means so much to me and our family.” The family gave the bishop fresh eggs to deliver to the priests living at the chancery.

Bishop Brennen went on to visit two other farms. At a 2,100-acre family farm passed down through several generations, he learned about the process of planting corn and soybeans. After the blessing, Bishop Brennan trekked across the field on a large Case IH tractor mounted with a 16-row planter.

Hann Family Farm

Finally, we visited the Hann family farm. Brothers Joe, Chuck, Deacon Dan Hann, and his son Mike, farm almost 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans and raise hogs. Joe Hann showed the bishop how their grain elevator works by drying and storing corn that will be either used to feed the hogs or sold to a nearby ethanol plant. The day concluded with a delicious strawberry shortcake.

“The bishop showed a genuine pastoral presence,” said Deacon Hann. “I’m grateful for that. He showed not only his care and concern for our own farms, but also the farms and rural communities across the diocese. I believe he had a good time. So did we.”

Blessings

Throughout our travels, Bishop Brennan repeated this sentiment: “Today’s blessing, at least in my own heart, is asking God’s help for all of the farmers who both care for the ground and provide for all our needs. Thank you.”

On last year’s feast day, Bishop Brennan again ventured out to the rural areas of the diocese. He visited a farm market, an orchard and a Catholic school this time. At the school, students displayed their agriculture and environmental projects.

During the school Mass, the bishop preached about care for God’s creation and themes from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”).

Photos of Bishop Brennan blessing a farm couple in the middle of a field was one of the most popular posts on the diocese’s Facebook page. The social-media likes and comments from rural, urban and suburban Catholics expressed deep gratitude to both the bishop and to farm families.

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Sts. Isidore and Maria

St. Isidore was born in 1070 near Madrid, Spain. He was a day laborer who worked on the farm of John de Vergas at Torrelaguna.

Isidore married a poor girl named Maria Torriba, and they had a son who died in infancy. The couple took a vow of continence to serve God.

Isidore prayed as he worked and was a model of simple Christian charity and faith. He shared his meals with the poor and was known to give them more than he had for himself.

He would attend morning Mass before going out into the field. It is said that two angels appeared and joined Isidore in plowing the fields to help him catch up on his chores.

St. Maria always kept a pot of stew on the stove because her husband would bring home anyone hungry. One day, Isidore brought home a larger number of the hungry than usual, and Maria ran out of stew. She told Isidore that the pot was empty. Isidore told her to look again and there was enough stew to feed them all.

Isidore died in 1130, and Maria then became a hermit. She too was known for miracles and for bringing rain from heaven for an afflicted dry countryside.

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Strengthening Rural Ministry

The blessing of farms is one of the many ways the Church can express her closeness with the rural community. The following are additional suggestions to strengthen rural ministry.

Be Present. One of the most loved rural pastors in the Diocese of Columbus was known to have the messiest personal office because he hardly spent any time in it. The pastor made an intentional effort to go out to the peripheries to be with his rural parishioners. When parishioners did come to the parish, he always fed them with potlucks, and facilitated retreats and parish missions.

Institute Rogation Days. The tradition of Rogation Days is starting to make a comeback in the Church. These are days of prayer, fasting and petitioning God’s mercy and blessings for a good harvest. The tradition includes a procession and the Litany of the Saints. It is an excellent opportunity for the Church to come together in solidarity with farm families.

Celebrate the Harvest. Across the country, parishes and dioceses celebrate an annual Mass in thanksgiving for the harvest. This is an occasion to express sincere gratitude to God and the farming community. A reception or meal following Mass often features locally grown produce.

Address Isolation. One of the challenges of living in a rural community is isolation, especially among the rural elderly. A simple check-in can go a long way. Priests may also feel isolated in a rural community. As dioceses continue to cluster parishes, assigning priests to live in community will help alleviate isolation and burnout.

Form Parish Outreach Ministries. Rural parishioners tend to be reluctant to talk about personal or family issues. Providing solidarity and concrete resources can assist families in navigating through various challenges. Address poverty, addiction and mental health. Start a jail ministry.

Visit Migrant Farmworkers. These workers labor in the fields and at dairy farms, horse farms, poultry processing plants, orchards and nurseries. Many are Catholic. As migrant farmworkers often live in the shadows, it is necessary to seek them out, listen to their needs and invite them to the parish.

Whether you are a priest in a rural, urban or suburban setting, consider making a special effort to make the connection of faith, family and community with those whose vocation is to tend to the garden.

JERRY FREEWALT is executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio.

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Blessing of Seeds and Prayer for Rain

Loving God, the Spirit of Life hovered over the waters and began the great work of creation. Bless the waters of this earth. Let them fall again from the sky at the proper times so that our gardens and fields may yield abundantly, and all growing things may thrive.

Bless also these seeds, pregnant with life. They show us the Easter mystery of new life coming from death and burial. May they burst forth soon with verdant growth from earth, rain and sun.

You have called us to the honored task of being workers in your garden. Through the rain and these seeds, bring us to a new awareness of your presence in and around us, as we joyfully live in the knowledge of eternal resurrection.

Plant seeds of love in our lives that will grow through the years, watered by the tears of pain and sacrifice that come our way. Your Son showed us the way. We now ask your guidance to follow it well. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

— from Catholic Rural Life

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