By Magdalene Chiang and Suresh Chandra
PENANG — The Church of Divine Mercy (CDM) was awarded the “Green Office Certificate” by the Penang Green Council of the state government in 2019. As the first certified Green Parish in Malaysia it embarked on yet another project to promote an eco-friendly environment. A rooftop vegetable garden above the church here was launched during the MCO period. It has since been named Divina Hortus, a Latin term meaning Divine Garden. This project was to celebrate the Season of Creation.
On Sept 18, a discussion was viewed on Facebook in a programme entitled “Shout from the Rooftops”. In it, a virtual on-line tour was conducted of Divina Hortus and viewers got to see the elements of the setting up and current state of the garden. Since then the event has been published on the “Season of Creation” website as an activity of The Global Catholic Climate Movement. The video can be accessed at the Facebook site https://www.facebook.com/cdmsgarapg/videos/1006784559745087.
The idea of a vegetable garden was first mooted during the lockdown in March as there was a shortage of fresh vegetables. Anne Chong (the eventual project leader) and Magdalene Chiang (Head of the Ministry of Friends of Creation) discussed this acute problem with a few of the members and came up with the idea of having our very own vegetable garden in the church grounds.
The main challenge at that time was finding a space to carry out the project. Then CDM parish priest, Fr Martin Arlando, offered the team the rooftop space.
An added advantage of this site was that the roof has solar panels which would serve as a natural shade to the plants.
Fr Martin has also advised the team to set up the garden in line with the concept of a Saint’s Garden. A poster of the Blessed Virgin Mary was installed on the main wall on the rooftop, as the team learned that the Blessed Virgin Mary is patroness of all things and good activities.
Later it was learned that St Fiacre is the Saint of Herbs and Vegetables. Halina Gooi, another volunteer, enthusiastically consented to paint him on the wall. She had earlier admitted not really knowing if she could manage it, but just felt compelled to try. The first signboard of Divina Hortus was handdrawn by Hannah Rose – one of the youths in CDM when she heard of the need for signage.
With the generous donations of pots, earth, plant seeds and cuttings, the project proceeded in earnest. After a period of five months there now appears on the rooftop garden a wide variety of plants and vegetables. Due to the diligence and tender care of many volunteers, the vegetables now growing include green and red long beans, baby cucumber plants, potato leaves, kangkong or water morning glory, mint and Thai basil, pandan leaves (also known as screw pine leaves), edible aloe vera, bitter gourd, curly dwarf bak choy, red amaranth, cherry tomatoes and chilli.
To ensure sustainable fertilizing, the team applies anaerobic composting with the help of natural fertilizers purchased from the Consumers Association of Penang. These include Pancagavya, Farmers EM, and Fish Amino. CDM, being also awarded with the “Aqua Save Certificate,” is committed to saving water by rain harvesting. To achieve this, Fr Martin, with the help of a few parishioners, completed a DIY rain harvest system by installing a huge container to collect the rain water flowing down from the solar panels. The water is channelled to connect to a pipe to taps that serve all three floors of the building, including the rooftop garden. In addition, the team also reuses 500ml and 600ml mineral water bottles to make a DIY bottle irrigation system for potted plants. The water in each bottle can carry out the soil irrigation for about three days. In this way the soil is kept moist, and this is able to sustain the plants even if they miss a day of watering. An added advantage of the rooftop garden is that while working there, we are blessed with stunning views of the surrounding area. The primary goal of this project is to inspire the community to grow their own food with simple gardening methods. This will shorten our food chain and provide some food security, to be able to eat healthy and also to save money. It is a great hobby for children to spend their time productively and a stress reliever for adults and the elderly.
The new parish priest at CDM, Fr Michael Raymond OFM Cap, added that the children of CDM may be encouraged to volunteer to join in this project and take up a plot to grow their own vegetables. He further suggested painting a mural of St Francis of Assisi who is the patron saint of Laudato Si and is mentioned in Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
In the future, CDM hopes to be able to grow a greater volume of vegetables for sale to sustain this project and also to donate to the poor. This place serves as an education centre to encourage community engagement to help save the environment. Currently, CDM is applying for funding from government agencies and seeking donations to achieve its goals. With our trust in God and His grace, we will submit to God’s will to make this a better place for all.