The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 7, 2012

Local nun says she has a dirty thumb, not a green one

By Karen Blackledge
The Danville News

— DANVILLE — Sister Fidelis Beck climbs up and down a ladder, digs in the dirt and saws.

“She does everything,” said Sandy McCleoughan. What’s remarkable is that Beck is 94 years old.

She tends to many of the indoor and outdoor plants at the Villa Sacred Heart complex of the Sisters of St. Cyril and St. Methodius.

“I live in this apron,” she said, referring to a navy blue apron she wears while working with plants.

“She handles a shovel like a teaspoon,” said Sister Mary Isidore, who also cares for their plants.

McCleoughan, a 30-year employee of the complex, works on the outside grounds and assists with the upkeep of other plants.

The solarium on the fourth floor of Maria Hall, where the sisters live, will be full by about March because Beck starts seedlings and small plants for their garden at that time.

The Dominican sister moved to Danville five years ago from Elkins Park, north of Philadelphia.

At one time, she tended 500 rose bushes. “I have worked 62 years with plants,” she said, including three greenhouses on 42 acres at Elkins Park.

At 85, Isidore has tended plants at the Danville complex for 65 years. “She leaves her walker outside and takes her cane when she works with the plants,” McCleoughan said.

The outside plants they care for include flowers and greenery in 37 urns. They often plant geraniums, sunpatiens, aggeratums and marigolds.

They also have what Sister Irene Marie described as “a delicious garden.”

She is the local coordinator of the sisters’ motherhouse. Marie sometimes will mist seedlings when no one else is available.

Marie said Beck, since moving to Danville, has “added more to the garden and done a lot to help beautify the grounds.”

The sisters use grow lights in their barn area for the geraniums to winter over.

Whatever plants and flowers they don’t use on their grounds are offered for suggested donations at the sisters’ annual summer festival. Last year, they sold more than 100 plants in containers.

Beck shows her creative side when adding flowers she grows to the Maria Hall Chapel. She made a display using a large piece of driftwood from her nephew who lives between Canada and the U.S. “He had it lying around for 25 years,” she said. The driftwood came from the St. Lawrence River.

They start their garden plants from seeds or from what Beck called “plugs,” which are small plants. They usually plant lettuce, a variety of tomatoes, parsley, garlic, peppers, cabbage, string beans and rhubarb.

“We used raised beds this year and really like them. We will be using more next year,” McCleoughan said.

They grow lettuce, tomatoes, gladiolus, cucumbers and lettuce in soil on farm wagons to keep animals away.

The grounds also have apple, pear and peach trees and grape vines.

The approximately 60 sisters at the complex benefit by eating the home-grown vegetables. They also use the fruit in their meals and make cider in the fall and jelly and juice from the grapes.

The sisters save rain water for watering. They keep tea bags and coffee grounds to mix with the soil and also have a compost pile.

“It’s a talent God has given me to work with plants,” Beck said.

She said she doesn’t have a green thumb. “I have a dirty thumb,” she said.

Her secrets to healthy plants are water and fertilizer. And “horse manure is very important,” especially for roses and vegetables, she said.

Marie said prayers also help the plants grow.