🎃 St. Peter’s and the Great Pumpkins 🎃

by Alan Bisbort and Heather Fitzgerald

St. Peter’s Episcopal has, for good reason, become known as Cheshire’s “Pumpkin Church”. For 20 years, a Community Pumpkin Patch has appeared every September and October along the Main Street entrance to the historic church—among the highest visibility spots in Cheshire. For many town residents, fall doesn’t truly arrive until the pumpkins appear at St. Peter’s.

But how did this tradition get started? The idea sprouted (pun fully intended) from a postcard sent to St. Peter’s Kim Clarke, who was Youth Director at the time. “I thought selling pumpkins would be a wonderful hands-on activity for the youth, with the opportunity to be an intergenerational activity for the parish”, says Clarke.  “I found a co-leader in Jim Chapman, received approval from the vestry, and our first load of 300 pumpkins was delivered the fall of 2007.”

And she was right—it’s become a key initiative for St. Peter’s, bringing parishioners and community members together to unload, sell and enjoy the pumpkins and gourds. This program is also very special to St. Peter’s as it provides support in two ways – to the indigenous growers who provide the pumpkins, as well as to various local organizations and charities.

“I thought selling pumpkins would be a wonderful hands-on activity for the youth, with the opportunity to be an intergenerational activity for the parish.”

– Kim Clarke

The power of pumpkin partnerships

So…where do the pumpkins come from? These pumpkins are provided by Pumpkins USA, an organization that leases land from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) they are grown in a 1,200-acre (roughly 2-square-mile) patch at a Navajo Indian Reservation in Farmington, New Mexico. Pumpkins USA maintains a full-time, off-season Native American staff, and hires an additional 700 Native Americans during the harvest season.

Once the pumpkins are harvested, Pumpkins USA leases trucks to carry the pumpkins and gourds to their more than 1,000 clients across the continental U.S., comprised mainly of churches, youth groups, Scout troops, schools, habitat groups and other civic organizations. Pumpkins USA keeps a percentage of sales from the patch, which go back into supporting this pumpkin growing program.

While St. Peter’s leads the Community Pumpkin Patch, we are proud to partner with Cheshire High School (CHS) Best Buddies and Re-Read Books in this program.  St. Peter’s and CHS Best Buddies have partnered on the Patch for many years, and during the COVID pandemic, were joined by ReRead Books.  The CHS Best Buddies group is a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  ReRead Books is a Cheshire bookshop whose mission is to provide job training and skill development to those with special needs.  Profits from the sales at the Patch are split among St. Peter’s, CHS Best Buddies and ReRead Books.

The Community Pumpkin Patch today

Today, the Patch is run by Wendy Ciaburri, a dedicated parishioner who also runs our Godly Play program on Sunday mornings for children 5 and under, leads our Hospitality ministry, as well as many other key initiatives at St. Peter’s. She took over from Kim in 2018 and truly believes in the sense of community and fun it brings to St. P’s. “The Community Pumpkin Patch is important because it allows us to work with other groups from our community and it allows us to meet and talk to people we might not normally have the opportunity to meet,” says Wendy.

The Community Pumpkin Patch is important because it allows us to work with other groups from our community and to engage with people we might not normally have the opportunity to meet.”

Wendy Ciaburri

“Many people come year after year and have made the Patch a tradition and actually remember me, so I’m sure they remember others that sell as well.  I feel that as a church we need to do as Jesus taught us and love our neighbors and being out front selling pumpkins is one way to meet our neighbors and let our light shine!” Wendy also finds joy in “letting our light shine” with an event she organizes called Kids’ Day in the Patch.  This event welcomes children to the Patch to enjoy yard games, Halloween bingo, pumpkin painting, science experiments and more.

Now in its 20th year, the Community Pumpkin Patch sells around 1,000 pumpkins each season and has donated thousands of dollars to nonprofits that include Episcopal Relief and Development, The Red Cross, ASPCA, Habitat for Humanity, Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. St. Peter’s has also used funds from this initiative to send care packages to our troops overseas.  We also believe it has provided countless hours of fun and laughs for those who have engaged with the Patch in one way or another over the years!

The Community Pumpkin Patch is located at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 59 Main St. in Cheshire. It is open weekdays from noon to 6:00 p.m. and weekends from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.  Kids’ Day in the Patch is scheduled for October 8 from noon to 4 p.m. for children up to 3rd grade. The Patch will be open until Halloween, or until the pumpkins are all sold.

A bit about jack-o-lanterns

As for the jack-o-lantern tradition, that comes from across the pond in Ireland, where it has long been part of Irish mythology. It seems that a scoundrelnamed Stingy Jack played a number of tricks on the devil. When Jack died, legend has it that he was such an unsavory character that St. Peter would not allow him passage into heaven. Meanwhile, the devil, angered by the tricks Jack had played on him over the years, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his path. Jack carved out a turnip and put the coal in it so it wouldn’t burn his hands. And, according to the myth, Jack has been roaming the Earth ever since, carrying his turnip lantern. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and then simply as “Jack O’Lantern.”

Other Europeans adapted the myth and began carving scary faces into turnips, potatoes and beets. They placed these spooky items in windows and doorways to frighten away the roaming ghost of Stingy Jack and other wandering spirits. When European immigrants came to America, they brought the Jack O’Lantern tradition with them. Here they quickly discovered what you already know: Pumpkins make perfect Jack O’Lanterns!