Fontbonne helps its neighbors on Fontbonne Day

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Dressed appropriately and perhaps providentially in school colors, Lovie Haynes, age 87, watched approvingly from her second-story deck as 10 volunteers from Fontbonne University, a few clad in matching purple, worked across the street in Friends of Hamilton Village Community Gardens.

The volunteers — students, faculty and staff — cleaned up the property to give "Miss Lovie" and future volunteers a blank slate for spring planting, mostly of vegetables. They mowed grass, pulled weeds and raked nine, raised-planter beds in preparation for the harvest-able greenery. Back and forth, they hauled wheelbarrows overflowing with yard waste to a truck for off-site composting then wheeled them back empty for another load.

For the better part of four hours, the Fontbonne volunteers brought to life Lovie's vision in founding the garden 16 years ago and the college's vision for helping its neighbors, which is in its DNA from the founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

The clean-up at the corner of Hamilton and Wells avenues, four blocks north of St. Augustine Church, was just a small part of Fontbonne Day, among the most important days on the university's calendar. For the past 10 years, the school has canceled classes on Fontbonne Day, with students, faculty and staff fanning out across the area for good works.

On April 7, volunteers spruced up community gardens throughout the area, moved furniture at Marian Middle School in St. Louis and visited residents at Nazareth Living Center in south St. Louis County, among other things; they helped at 22 locations in all. On Fontbonne Day, the university showed that Catholic education doesn't end with Parish School of Religion (PSR), grade school or high school. It continues in higher education.

"It's not like this is a watered-down thing either; there's a lot going on," said sophomore Quinn Wilson, who was volunteering at Hamilton and covering Fontbonne Day in pictures and words as an English/professional writing major.

His alma mater, St. Mary's High School in south St. Louis, does similar daylong service each fall.

"This has a big impact," he said, noting that the gardens look "pretty nice once you get all the extra (weeds) out of the way."

The church and community service aspects appealed to sophomore Jaylah Jones. A graduate of Belleville (Ill.) West High School, she's originally from East St. Louis.

"In East St. Louis, it's pretty much the same scene as right here," she said, gesturing to nearby vacant buildings but anxious to get back to work. "I love doing this, doing things for the community. I grew up in a church family, and have always liked helping people."

Before the work commenced, Lovie and her aptly-named dog, Buddy, sat on a plastic chair in the garden with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus nearby and shared the story about the garden's genesis. For many years, she had observed the dilapidated two-family flats on the property but had a plan to change things for the better.

"I sat on that porch," she said, pointing to her home across the street, "and I said, "Lord, if they ever tear down those buildings, I would like to have the property and plant a garden.'"

Lo and behold, the buildings were torn down, and the City of St. Louis would sell her the land for $2,000, a deal breaker. A widow for 30 years, she "didn't have that kind of money." Moments after she got that bad news at City Hall, an angel in form of a woman she met in the hallway answered her prayer, steering her to an office that led to a lease of $1 per year.

So, for just $16, Lovie has controlled the garden property since 2001, with City Lights, Gateway Greening and Brightside St. Louis contributing grading, plants and benches to improve the lot. Volunteers such as the Fontbonne group clean up and help with the planting.

"Miss Lovie has brought healing and hope into this neighborhood," said Chris Lemmon of Restore St. Louis, which facilitated the clean-up. "There's a lot of poverty, struggle and crime in this area; we feel called to bring a light to this place — God's healing and hope."

A 40-year parishioner at St. Augustine predecessor parish St. Barbara, Lovie leaves no doubt about Who has helped her in life, with the garden and otherwise. The mother of 11, she has 28 grandchildren and 64 great-grandchildren, and she overcame a nervous breakdown when her husband, then her father died in a nine-month span in 1970 and '71.

"I'm blessed," she said, simply. 

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