Refugee Community Garden: Project Martha

by Kayla Sue Jacobs, Director of Programs, Laudato Si’ Ministries, Diocese of Joliet

Project Martha Community Garden Gardeners

Recently I had a conversation with Deborah Mawi, the Family Support Coordinator for World Relief DuPage. World Relief is the refugee resettlement agency in the suburbs of Chicago. Deborah and I spoke about the Project Martha Community Garden at St. James the Apostle Parish, Glen Ellyn in the Diocese of Joliet. Project Martha Community Garden is a partnership between the parish and World Relief that started in 2017. The garden is housed on the St. James property. The garden is for newly arrived refugees, mostly from Burma, to grow healthy food for their families. 

This partnership was initiated by a St. James parishioner, Lisa Mirabella Orwig. Lisa was already involved as a volunteer with World Relief. The parish has a large open space of land and there is a refugee population in the area so it made perfect sense to let the refugees cultivate and care for the space. Lisa found a volunteer from the parish to till the land. The parish provides the land and water and the refugees provide the seeds and gardening skills. 

Project Martha Community Garden, St. James the Apostle, Glen Ellyn

Most of the refugees have a farming background in their homeland and many of them save their seeds from year to year. When the garden first started 10 families were involved, this year 17 families are gardening at St. James. They grow traditional Burmese food such as roselle, which is a sour leaf, mustard, chin paung, samtok, and hot peppers. 

Deborah noted that the garden has many benefits. The garden builds community, provides healthy organic food for families, and it reminds people of their homeland. “It is just a joy to be there,” said Deborah, who is also a Burmese refugee, “every time I visit the garden I feel like I’m in my homeland.”  Deborah highlighted the therapeutic aspects of the garden as well, “it is mentally healing, it builds confidence, and it feels like an accomplishment.” At the end of our conversation Deborah said, “The refugee families are very blessed with the garden and they look forward to it every year. I pray that more churches open their land for gardens.” 

Fr. David Hankus, Pastor at St. James the Apostle, blessing the Project Martha Community Garden

Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for creation, emphasizes an integral ecology, that tends to the environment and human life and dignity. The Project Maratha Community Garden is an excellent example of Laudato Si’ in action. May God bless their ministry and community. St. Isidore, patron Saint of farming, and St. Mother Cabrini, patron Saint of refugees and immigrants, pray for us!  

If you are interested in starting a community garden at your parish and would like some assistance contact Ms. Kayla S. Jacobs, Director of Programs of Laudato Si’ Ministries for the Diocese of Joliet at

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