June 7, 2017

Gardens and gargoyles: Dilapidated churches grow into urban farms

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Illustration by Amy M. Capobianco

This article was originally published in the April 16, 2017, edition of the Sun.

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Wondering what the future could hold for one of the city’s most beloved church buildings? Find out with author BJ Hill in the Sun’s serial glimpse into the fantastic (and mostly fictional) possibilities of a not-so distant tomorrow.

WORCESTER, June 9, 2019 – Within the city of Worcester there are 12 former church buildings that are facing the wrecking ball. Three of these buildings date back to the 1880s. They are cherished, sacred spaces where generations of parishioners married, baptized children, and said their goodbyes to loved ones. But in the last few decades, congregations of every faith have thinned out. While a giant extravagant property was once a symbol of reverence and success for a parish, now it’s become maintenance headaches for cash-strapped finance committees.

Some congregations sought to let go of the buildings, but developers know it’s daunting to repurpose thick cement walls, redesign a cavernous interior, and maintain the cultural and historical legacy.

Some church buildings were sold to the highest bidder, anyway, to await uncertain futures. With uninterested new owners and a minimum of maintenance, the once-mighty cornerstones of communities now decay and molder until they’re no longer safe to keep standing.

But a local company called Altar2Table is on a preservation campaign to purchase the properties and fix them up for what once would have been considered a most unlikely use: urban farms.

Can’t get enough? Find more What if … Worcester here

Altar2Table’s first purchase was Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Mulberry Street, which was officially closed by the Diocese of Worcester in 2016. After a year of renovations, the farm commenced operations in January 2019 and yielded its first harvest in April.

“We looked at buildings all over Central Massachusetts,” said Altar2Table CEO Richard Olson. “We just needed four walls and lots of indoor space. We didn’t even need the roof, since we’d have to replace that, anyways.

“We walked through empty factories and warehouses that fit that bill, even an old supermarket on Mill Street. But we had an idea that if we could buy and preserve an old church that had historical significance for the community, everyone would win.”

On the exterior of Mount Carmel, the noticeable difference is the roof made of clear acrylic panels, allowing the sunlight to flood into the nave. Elsewhere, the landscaping and Romanesque stonework of the 1928 church has been touched up.

On the inside, two 40-foot-tall aluminum trellises are suspended 12 feet from the ground and run 100 feet along the length of the church. These long rectangles, segmented by horizontal rails from which dangle soil pots, provide four 4,000-vertical-square-foot surfaces for growing crops.

Pipes and hoses run along the scaffolds and drizzle water down the plants. The water collects in troughs below, where it is filtered, pumped upwards and reused. A relaxing spring shower sound echoes throughout the building.

Additionally, there are about 20 large elevated gardening plots on the pew-less stone floor.

“We’re growing the staples, like beans, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and kale,” Olson said. “But we also figured out how to hang garlic, mushrooms, flowers, bamboo and herbs – profitable cash crops we can grow in bulk all year long.”

“Farmers need space, and historically that space has come from patches of ground,” said Michael Yeoh, one of four full-time farmers employed by the company. “But with 21st century technology that land can be vertical. That’s key, because there’s not many vacant plots left in cities.”

Yeoh, 23, has degrees in mechanical engineering and botany from the city’s new urban innovation program administered by a consortium of five area colleges — Clark, WPI, Worcester State, Quinsigamond Community College and Becker University — and anchored in the newly renovated Front Street space formerly occupied by the Midtown Mall.

“This job is cool because it’s one part farming and one part techie stuff. Because we had to build high, we rely on sensors, drones, and wireless networking to get us information like sunlight, moisture, and growth rates,” Yeoh said. “We don’t have to actually see the plants anymore. And when we’re ready to harvest, we have a couple of motorized scissor lifts to get us up there.”

The operation has earned kudos from the property’s old owner, the Diocese of Worcester.

“We’re very happy with the good work that Altar2Table has been doing within our former church buildings,” Bishop Daniel Abebe said. “Where I come from, Ethiopia, we know what it’s like to go hungry. If our churches can help to alleviate that hunger, through its people or through its edifices, then they are doing the work of God’s will, with help from science.”

Altar2Table leverages the “farm to table” movement and sells most of its produce to local restaurants. But on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, the front doors of the old church open directly to the public.

In the area of the nave between the front doors and the suspended trellises, a score of stalls are set up where folks can purchase not just produce, but also breads, meats, cheeses and pastries from other local vendors.

“I love this place because they have everything I need for my family,” said Megan MacNamara, who lives in Shrewsbury. “I started coming here two months ago and I haven’t been back to a real supermarket since.”

“Yeah, I thought this was gonna be a disgrace,” said Al Marcello, who has lived in the Shrewsbury Street neighborhood for most of his 62 years. “I grew up here, was baptised here, got my first communion, married, funerals – you know, it was the family church. For the diocese to come in to shut it down, that was a kick in the teeth. And then [when] I read that the church where I grew up in was going to be used as a garden I’m thinking, ‘Jesus they’re going to fill it up with [expletive] dirt.’

“But then I saw the setup they got going here and I gotta say, I’m impressed. On the outside, the church looks a hundred times better. No more boarded up windows or cracked parking lot. These farmers, they’re doing a good thing for the neighborhood. This may sound weird, but even though I don’t go to Mass in this church anymore, I take a little pride when I walk by.”

“I grew up in a Christian household,” Olson said, “and one of my favorite Bible quotes is John 12:24, which says though a grain of wheat dies, it bears many seeds. Altar2Table is about stewardship. In our business, we take something that is considered dead, the church building, and we care for it until it’s producing food and once again a vital part of the community.

“We grow tons of produce and we rarely throw anything away. If we don’t sell it, we truck it to the food bank or Abby’s House or Vets, Inc. We believe that we’ve been entrusted with God’s work in His building and for His people.

“Based on our success here in Worcester, we’ve just purchased a church in Springfield and a synagogue near Boston we’ll be converting over the next year. And I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m pretty excited to announce Altar2Table’s next renovation project — turning an old church on Worcester’s West Side into the city’s first cannabis farm.”

[Thanks to Technocopia’s Nick Bold and Kevin Harrington for their pointers on indoor farming.]

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