December 11, 2003
Several religious orders in California are following the tradition of tending olive trees set by the early missionaries. There has been a resurrection of old groves by traditional orders and new planting by religious groups new to California.
Olive trees and grapes have been tended by monastic orders for thousands of years in the Mediterranean world. On the Acropolis in Athens is the first olive tree said to have been given by Athena to mankind. Athena's priests tended the useful tree as a ritual of their order. With the discovery of the new world, the Jesuit missions continued the farming tradition. The missions were designed to be self-sufficient with grape vines and olive cuttings sent from Spain for food and the rituals of the church. Olive oil was used for anointing at births and deaths and wine was a part of the sacrament of the Catholic church.
The Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration and Education Project aims to reestablish olive trees at many of the original California missions established by the Franciscan order. Cuttings and truncheons taken from some of the original mission trees which are now hundreds of years old have been planted where the original orchards once stood. At Soledad mission the olive oil will be used during services and will be sold in the mission gift shops.
In Northern California Father Bernie Bush organized the harvest of olive trees at the Jesuit Retreat House and the Carmelite monastery in Santa Clara. Unfortunately the olive fly has stopped Father Bush's traditional Thanksgiving weekend volunteer harvest.
The Dominican sisters at Mission San Jose still harvest olives growing on church property to make oil for use during services and as a fund raiser. This year they hope to sell 3,500 bottles of olive oil at their annual Holiday Boutique.
Instead of harvesting ornamental or heritage trees, there are religious groups planting new orchards as part of their long term planning. Starcross Monastery in Sonoma county is a small independent community of lay women and men "offering encouragement and affirmation to gentle folk on all spiritual paths." According to Sister Marti, their interest in olives developed after considering several cash crops for monastery farmland that could support their mission. Grapes were felt to require too much expert knowledge and olives went along with the monastic tradition they follow. Their olive trees are young and have not yet produced so they are offering holiday wreaths as a fund raiser this year instead of olive oil.
Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery is an Eastern Orthodox men’s community established in 1983. In 2000 the monastery was moved to Kelseyville, California where their property has olive orchards. Traditionally the monks have supported their activities through ikon painting; cards and large frescoes. Some of the churches the monks have adorned include the Church of SS Gregory and Anastasia, Bernweiller, Alsace, France and St. Seraphim of Sarov, Santa Rosa. Recently, through the generosity of parishioner Michael Gombos, the monks have a new Pieralisi Fattoria 2 olive oil press to process their olives. They hope to generate income from sale of the oil to Eastern orthodox communities throughout the country.
Starcross Monastery for information or a wreath: (707) 886-1919
Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery 707-279-0488