Sisters Confident Heirloom Seeds Will Be ‘Treasured For The Future’

This story has been published here and in its original form with the permission of Meghan Balogh, Kingston Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network.

A 20-year project to save and store heirloom seeds is beginning a new season with new caretakers.

An emotional ceremony marked the passing of the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary, tended for the past two decades by the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, to two regional organizations that have committed to ensuring the preservation of the seeds into the future.

The collection features nearly 300 varieties of heirloom seeds, some varieties of which date back to the 1500s.

The seeds are being gifted to the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) and to Ratinenhayen:thos — which in the Mohawk language means, “They are farmers of seeds” — based on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory west of Napanee.

The Heirloom Seed Sanctuary began in 1999 at the Sisters of Providence property on Princess Street in Kingston. The seed collection was donated by farmers Carol and Robert Mouck, who had worked for many years to establish a collection of heirloom seeds on their farm in Napanee.

“Now it is time for the sisters to cease this ministry, to let the descendants of the original seeds to move again to responsible and caring organizations,” Sister Sandra Shannon said during a rematriation ceremony at the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse on Monday afternoon.

The ceremony gave members of each of the three groups the opportunity to speak about the giving and receiving of the precious seed collection.

“We are truly excited about this,” Shannon said. “We have confidence that the seeds have found, once again, good homes in which they will be treasured for the future. It is with pleasure that we pledge that we will pass these seeds on to these two organizations.”

Cate Henderson has been at the forefront of seed saving initiatives in Kingston on two fronts — both as head gardener at Sisters of Providence and the lead on the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary for 11 years. She is also as a founding member of KASSI.

Henderson was emotional as she spoke to an assembled audience of individuals and groups involved in the transfer of responsibility. She is passing the baton on a project that has visibly been deeply personal to her.

“What drew me to this ministry was the knowledge that I am a seed,” Henderson said, wiping away tears. “And in fact, we are all of us seeds. We are each a cell in the vast body of life, distinct, yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they, in turn, are affected by everything we do. Therefore, all living beings are important, and their happiness and freedom are also important. This is the wonder of creation. This is why this ministry has been so important to me.”

Henderson shared drawings that she made years ago of the seed sanctuary as a seed itself — being planted by the Moucks, growing and being transplanted to the sisters, and now spreading.

“It’s all kind of come to fruition today, in this moment,” Henderson said, talking about how the plant that is the seed sanctuary has grown to maturity. “That flower has gone to seed, and it’s dropping its seeds. Those seeds are germinating in new soil, with KASSI and Ratinenhayen:thos. And so that’s how we pass the heirloom seeds to the next generation.”

Representatives from the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) and Ratinenhayen:thos accepted the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary from the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul during a rematriation ceremony at the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse on Monday, April 22, 2019. Meghan Balogh/The Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network

Janice Brant, one in a group of dedicated volunteers who make up Ratinenhayen:thos, acknowledged Henderson and the sisters for their work and their commitment to the seeds over time and to seeing “the value of keeping them and sharing them and passing them along to others.”

“You are the seed mother,” Brant said to Henderson. “I think we have a lot of learning to do yet about these seeds and this seed collection. Some of the collection is very known to us, because we are, like I said, already agriculturists. But some of the seeds are not well known to us, and we have a lot to learn in terms of how we propagate those seeds and what to do.”

Kathy Rothermel spoke on behalf of KASSI. Rothermel said KASSI’s mission statement is “to facilitate the development of a regional seed system,” and that the non-profit is doing that by partnering with community initiatives and organizations such as Loving Spoonful and St. Lawrence College, and by offering community events to encourage local residents to take an interest in locally produced seeds.

Backyard growers producing local heirloom seeds is one portion of a circle that surrounds a successful local seed system, Rothermel said, and the heirloom seed sanctuary is filling in gaps in Kingston’s seed system.

Having a seed system in place means that a community can be food secure in the future and counteract the global trend towards commodified, standardized, uniform seeds, many of which are controlled by large corporations.

“These projects that we’re doing here in the community are the opposite of all of those things,” Rothermel said. “This is an important mission on an international scale. This is a local initiative, but it has far-reaching implications for everyone on our great Earth, here as we celebrate Earth Day.”

Part of the rematriation ceremony included the presentation of a Wampum Belt, a traditional Mohawk belt made from shell beads. The belt marks the agreement between the three parties, each of whom read their commitment during the ceremony, and it will be brought out each year to reiterate the commitment of the sisters, KASSI and Ratinenhayen:thos to the preservation of the seed sanctuary.

“This is one of our historic methods of recording, as Haudenosaunee people,” Nikki Auten, a volunteer with Ratinenhayen:thos, said. “And it’s a big deal for you to acknowledge, after the history of colonization, for you to acknowledge and participate in our ways. … I want to thank you for that.”

“As we worked on the Wampum Belt one afternoon here, we saw the integration of the warp and woof of the weaving loom, and saw the relationship between the earth, water and air as all connected,” Sister Shirley Morris read as part of the sisters’ commitment to the seed sanctuary’s future. “As they wove up and down with the beading needle and the wax thread, we saw connections between our best practices for the seeds and our hopes and dreams for their future, as they pass on to Ratinenhayen:thos and KASSI.

“Our hope is that this seed collection will continue to be grown out for seed and food, and saved each year using good practices and energy. As it took two hands working together in sewing the beads, it is our hope that both groups will work with others in fostering a healthy regional seed system of individuals and groups.”

This story has been published here and in its original form with the permission of Meghan Balogh, Kingston Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network.

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