Hope and help grow in
Rural Services garden
By luke eggleston / SUN staff writer
CINCINNATUS — The heart of the Rural Services ministry program is lodged behind a small storefront. A narrow walkway marked with monuments in the forms of flowers encircles more monuments in what the sisters who founded the program dubbed “The Field of Dreams.”
Each blooming memorial bears the name of a figure important to the small communities that dot Cortland and Chenango Counties. Christmas trees in the garden memorialize Paul Harvey, who sold the same trees during the winter while he was alive. A burst of perennials as well as other plants and flowers constitute a memorial in honor of Stanley and Beulah Pepper, important figures in the community who also sat on the Rural Services board.
This September, the program will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Two decades ago, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet set up the ministry with the support of the Syracuse Diocese.
Since the program’s foundation, the sisters have made memories with the people in the community. In addition to the garden, Rural Services offers a store with affordable clothing and other items as well as a small plot of land nearby for growing vegetables.
As spread out as the community of Cincinnatus is the garden and the program’s other projects, offer volunteers an opportunity to gather and work together.
“It’s a place for people to meet and share their gifts. They do it to give something to the community,” Sister Kathleen Heffron, CSJ, said. “They could do this in their backyard but by making it a community garden, they share their talents by helping each other really and they fulfill that idea of doing something in memory of that person.”
Shirley Johnson moved to the Cincinnatus area from the north side of Syracuse six years ago. Volunteering with the Rural Services program offered her an opportunity to get to know people in the area.
“Sister told me about the garden and I wanted to learn more about gardening,” Johnson said. “I’ve made more friends here than I had in Syracuse you know.”
Originally there were three sisters but Rural Services suffered a double blow when both Sister Maureen Anne Burns, CSJ, and Sister Gen Glennon, CSJ, passed away within a month of one another in November and December of 2006 respectively.
Now there is only Sister Kathleen to sustain a program that each year struggles to make ends meet.
Lefty and Elizabeth Cannetti moved to Cincinnatus from Long Island 18 years ago and they attend Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, which is adjacent to the Rural Services store.
While her husband is a certified plumber who helps with any kind of building project Rural Services requires, Elizabeth Cannetti volunteers at the clothing store.
“It’s so rewarding,” Elizabeth Cannetti said. “When we started out we had only one room and now we have three.”
In addition to clothing, the store provides, for example, school supplies for children.
While based in Binghamton, the sisters saw a need that was not being met in the rural area to the north. The small towns in the region are atomized and isolated from larger populations (Cortland, out of which Rural Ministries is based, is 17 miles to the north).
Cincinnatus’ location, in Cortland County but close to Chenango County, made the small hamlet ideal for the sisters’ base of operations. Eleven communities are within Rural Ministries’ reach of 10 miles.
The program provides a valuable alternative for the rural poor as well as a sensible option for middle class residents.
“It’s not just for the poor; it’s a practical way of stretching anybody’s budget,” Sister Kathleen said.
Sister Kathleen explained that only one grocery store exists in the area and management is free to inflate prices without fear of giving a competitor an edge.
“You’re also dependent on one grocery store and that grocery store can charge whatever they want. You don’t have much of a choice in produce and you don’t have much of a choice on price,” she said.
Moreover, Rural Services is intensely aware of people’s dignity. Sister Kathleen related the story of one woman who was concerned that if she took advantage of the services, she might be viewed as a “bad mother.”
“We had this girl. She came in after Christmas and her shoes were literally flopping off. She said that they sent her down from the medical center and she said, ‘They said you could help me.’ Well we found out that she’s got three kids….I sent one of the clerks over and said if we didn’t have a size nine I could give her a gift certificate. I couldn’t just say, ‘No we don’t have any’ it was that kind of deal,” Sister Kathleen explained. “The girls got engaged and gabbing. She was a single mom with a job and she was doing fine. I asked ‘Why didn’t you come for Christmas assistance?’ And she said ‘I make sure the kids are taken care of but I just need shoes for myself but I thought if I came and asked and got help then I was a bad mother.’ Isn’t that awful?”
Sister Kathleen emphasized that while Rural Services doesn’t charge very much, it is important to the dignity of the people that come there that they engage in some kind of an exchange.
“People ask ‘Well, why do you charge?’ and you can see that we don’t charge much but that’s the dignity,” Sister Kathleen said.