CONCEPTION, Mo. — A first-time guest to the Abbey came upon one of the monastery grounds workers with an old baseball cap, wearing a pair of dirty blue jeans and a saturated gray T-shirt.
“Excuse me, sir…” the lady uttered. “Yes, ma’am,” replied the man.
“Do you know your way around? I’m trying to find the gift shop,” she said.
“I know my way around here pretty well,” replied the man, offering her some detailed directions to find the gift shop.
After browsing the gift shop, the woman joined the monastic community for Vespers where she was certain that she saw the man from earlier in the afternoon seated in choir and dressed in a black habit. Upon further inquiry, she was surprised to discover Archbishop Jerome Hanus was the gentleman who had given her directions.
“He didn’t look like an archbishop, but then again, I’ve never met one before,” she exclaimed.
As a young boy, Archbishop Jerome remembers his mother’s extensive vegetable garden, which he described as the size of a football field. Whether or not the size of the garden looked larger than it really was through his 6-year-old eyes, the future abbot, bishop and archbishop found his original inspiration and love for gardening in the vast expanse of his family’s garden.
As the third of eight children, the Hanus children were frequently recruited to work the garden, preparing the soil, weeding and hoeing, picking the potatoes, corn, melons, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, onions, radishes, cucumbers, cabbage and canning many of the vegetables and making jelly for future use.
His mother always kept a big patch of poppy from which she could make her delicious kolaches, a favorite treat in the household. The garden also included fruit trees like apples, peaches and cherries; she also always had plenty of rhubarb and horseradish.
When the neighbors wanted help with their garden and milking cows, Archbishop Jerome’s mother was happy to volunteer his service. All four of the Hanus boys learned how to garden, farm, bale and cut hay, pick and shell corn, as was the custom for boys growing up in farm country 50 miles west of Omaha.
His mother was the primary inspiration of his lifelong love of gardening, but his experience on the farm and outdoor work punctuate most of his years.
His proficiency for manual labor was tremendously valuable when he entered the monastery and the novices helped with baling hay. He was the only one in the class that had farm experience, driving and backing up the tractor with ease and finesse.
The young monks were also designated to assist in the apple orchard. Hanus recalls picking 13,000 bushels of apples one year and loading up a semi-truck to deliver apples north to Boy’s Town in Omaha. Working with nature was always something he enjoyed, but he had to put his gardening gloves aside for several years as he was sent to Rome to pursue his academic degree and teach.
Leadership and administration in religious life came early for him, as he was elected abbot of the monastery at the age of 36, making him the Abbey’s youngest abbot. Just over a decade later, he was named Bishop of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and seven years later, Archbishop of Dubuque.
While in Dubuque, he recalled planting 25 asparagus shoots around his residence. He once read that the life of an asparagus plant was 20 years, which was just enough time for his favorite vegetable to accompany him during his years shepherding the archdiocese.
While gardening was an occasional focus during his 36 years in positions of leadership (both as abbot and bishop), he frequently found relief from administrative work in a hard-fought game of racquetball or bridge.
Often known for his competitive drive, whether it was early in the morning several days a week on the racquetball court at Loras College or gathered with friends and foes around the card table, one can easily imagine that any game played with Archbishop Jerome was intense.
When he retired as Archbishop of Dubuque in 2013, he knew that he would want a way to decompress. Naturally, he turned to his familiar and old friend: gardening.
Seminarians, novices, oblates, employees, guest groups, and his family members have all toured his gardens and experienced his enthusiasm for the work. The all-access tour includes a glance into the temperature-controlled room in St. Michael’s Hall, where he cultivates his tomato plants, filled with all different colors of lights stringed on pulling systems hanging from the ceiling, easily raised and lowered when needed.
He enjoys the process of carefully preparing, the timely planting, harvesting them, and, of course, eating them. In previous summers, guest groups have spent their weekend praying with the monks, and then helping Archbishop Jerome make pesto, mint jelly, and horseradish.
He enjoys the solitude found in gardening, but will rarely turn down the company of others. In Chapter 6 of the Rule of St. Benedict, entitled, “The Restraint of Speech,” St. Benedict writes: “So important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk.” In keeping with St. Benedict’s wisdom, Archbishop Jerome will instruct his assistants, many of whom are novice and junior monks, that they will not be talking most of the time, “But if you want to carry on a conversation, I’ll listen.”
Even today, Archbishop Jerome can be found after breakfast in the monastery coffee room recruiting helpers to ride alongside him in the golf cart and assist in the garden.
For Archbishop Jerome, his longtime hobby literally bears fruit, and his monastic confreres and many others enjoy sharing in the harvest.