Site of the destroyed church sanctuary, now a community garden

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) – Members of St. Paul Lutheran Church have found a silver lining since the devastation caused by Hurricane Laura nearly two years ago by discovering a way to nourish both the souls and bodies in their congregation.

Rev. Tim Norris said on the remains of what was the sanctuary of their church are now the beginnings of a community garden as well as a small red pantry.

“We have five acres that need mowing and that turns a liability into an asset,” Norris said, laughing.

The trio, cared for by Norris and two other parishioners, already have tomatoes, zucchini, yellow summer squash, eggplant, okra and peppers taking root.

“Right now we’re keeping it in a 15-by-15-foot space, but we’re hoping later that others will want to come along and learn how to garden and help us make it thrive,” Norris said.

Next to the vegetable garden is a separate flower garden designed to attract pollinating insects.

“The three of us have enough to keep us busy,” Norris said of the first phase of the planting, which he hopes will eventually yield enough bounty to feed the neighborhood and fill the shelves along the United Way of Southwest Louisiana and Abraham’s tent.

“We want to get the community involved and interested and get other churches involved and interested, and maybe in a couple of years we’ll have an urban farm between all of us,” he said. “I have to do some homework because I want to be realistic.”

Norris said a feasibility study showed it would cost about $300 for $100 worth of vegetables the church is initially producing.

“But it’s worth it,” he added.

The garden is in the former corner of the chancel where the organist, pianist and keyboardist sat during Sunday services. The building was demolished shortly after the storm and the church has since met in its parish hall, which required only minor repairs and served as a distribution point for food and supplies when residents returned home following mandatory evacuation orders.

Norris said the space can feel a little cramped at times, but her plan is to wait another two or three years — as more contractors become available — before they start rebuilding. They are also considering building a multi-purpose building that would serve as both a sanctuary, protection from hurricanes, and a meeting place for community members.

“It was pretty hard to see the sanctuary being destroyed,” he said. “It was a very, very beautiful sanctuary and to see it destroyed was heartbreaking. A lot of people didn’t realize how bad it was.”

He said a former member of her church, who was driving through town after Hurricane Laura, stopped on site to mourn the building that was the site of so many of her childhood memories.

“She grew up here and had a lot of memories and it was hard for her – and for a lot of other people too – to see that the building is gone now. She just sat in the parking lot and cried,” he said. “But we now have a clean slate, a blank canvas and we will start something new.”

Norris said he spent time with community leaders about the need for such a garden before turning the dirt.

“Quite consistently, they talked about food shortage issues in that area, if not a food desert,” he said. “It’s one way to counter that. It’s just a start, but hopefully things go well and we can start planning for expansion.”

Norris said he plans to apply for grants that would allow him to do just that.

“Our faith community has some special tools to further explore this and shape our mission and ministry to meet the needs of the community,” he said.

The small red church pantry was also placed in the church parking lot to help those “who fall through the cracks.”

“It’s for the transient, the homeless, or those who need a few things to provide their family with dinner when the food stamps run out,” he said. “He is there for people to help themselves. We also have people coming over and putting things in, and we’ve put tomatoes in and they don’t last long before they’re gone.”

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