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St. Francis garden a living tribute to Cecilia Mancini


They’d grown fond of her

St. Francis garden a living tribute to Cecilia Mancini

By Debbie Hovanasian, Correspondent

‘I’ll keep doing this as long as i can, because it’s something i really like to do.’

Cecilia Mancini , before she died recently of cancer

Nine years ago a parish leader at St. Francis Church decided to teach her junior high religious education students the importance of following the Catholic Corporal Work of Mercy: feed the hungry.  The late Cecilia Mancini didn’t simply lecture about it. She put it into action using the church’s abundant resources. St. Francis Church and rectory are built on 15 acres of former farmland in east Dracut. In front of the rectory, which sits on a gently sloping hill, Mancini’s lesson to her students began — seed by seed.

They carved out a small area for a garden, planted and tended the soil until tomato plants sprung up from the ground. The “ fruits of their labor” were later delivered to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. A lesson was taught and a parish tradition was born.

The garden grew in size and variety each year, aided by Caroline Zuk of neighboring Saja Farm. Zuk’s crew helped Mancini install irrigation.

“ Cecilia knew if she grew the garden more efficiently, higher yields would result and more people would

Cecilia Mancini is fondly remembered by members of her parish at St. Francis Church in Dracut.

Courtesy of Cheryl Bosia

Be fed throughout New England’s seemingly short growing season,” said Zuk. “ It was always about how we do more with what we have, to feed more people.”

The number of garden volunteers grew as well. Mancini assembled a team ranging from children to seniors who assisted with planting seedlings all the way to harvest and cleanup.

Three years ago, in the midst of garden planning and other volunteer work, the spirited Mancini was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Throughout chemo, radiation and multiple doctor appointments, she was often seen on her good days in the sun and humidity, tending to the garden.

“ I’ll keep doing this as long as I can, because it’s something I really like to do,” she answered, with a smile, when asked how she does it while battling cancer.

In February, the well loved Mancini lost her battle, which left parishioners of St. Francis devastated. Some parishioners questioned if the garden could continue without Mancini’s daily devotion to planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing, harvesting and delivering the goods.

That question is answered with a glance up the hill today toward the white colonial- style rectory. The garden that Mancini planted with seeds of kindness — and to teach kindness — is growing just as abundantly as ever.

It’s a bucolic scene that the parish’s new administrator, the Rev. Kevin Sepe, a Lowell native, overlooks each day from the rectory.

“ There’s a deep sense of satisfaction, a blessing offered by the soil, hands and toil of our parishioners, able to provide, by the grace of God, produce from the earth — over 1,000 pounds — to our brothers and sisters in need in the Lowell community,” said Sepe. “ It’s an extraordinary gift.”

Carrying on Mancini’s mission to use the St. Francis soil to feed the hungry are the volunteers she inspired, led by Paul Gauthier. Gauthier, a retired Market Basket store manager, has spent most of his summer mornings in the garden — swapping the grocery store for the beauty of the parish grounds.

“ Cecilia called me in February ( 2020) and told me she would need more surgeries and probably wouldn’t be able to do the garden, and would I consider being the leader,” said Gauthier.

“ Cecilia Mancini is what made me answer the call. I was honored to take on her project that she started nine years ago,” Gauthier added.

Last summer, Mancini “ended up working half the year before her surgeries started. She truly was an inspiration to me and the others in the garden — always pleasant and

so excited about that garden,” he said.  Gauthier says he gets “ great satisfaction” starting the plants in March from seed and watching them grow into large productive vegetable plants that will feed those not able to purchase farm grown produce.

“ Once we get the garden planted and it starts to grow, every day becomes a new surprise, a new problem or a new situation,” he said.

This year has been particularly challenging for the garden due to all the rain. In fact, the volunteer team thought they might lose most of the crop.

“ Somehow, we turned it around and now it looks like we are going to have a great year. We have been sending vegetables out every week to the food bank and also helping our St. Francis Homeless Ministry with cherry tomatoes for the homeless in Lowell,” said Gauthier.

“ Every time we send out vegetables, it makes me feel that we are at least trying to do a little to help others — and hoping that Cecilia is pleased,” Gauthier said.

Today the entrance to the garden is enhanced with a border of rose bushes, cone flowers, mums and other perennials to honor Mancini’s love of flowers.

“ Next year the mums will be replaced by marigolds, which Cecilia loved,” said Gauthier. In Cecilia’s memory, “ it should be very colorful for the whole planting season.”

Garden volunteers, from left, are Carolyn Sullivan of Methuen, Gloria Carpentier of Dracut, Paula Bain of Lowell and Paul Gauthier of Dracut.

Courtesy of Jerry Serra

Cecilia Mancini is seen hard at work in the church garden.

Courtesy of Deb Hovanasian

Work on the garden is seen from above, in a picture taken by a drone.

Courtesy of Jerry Serra