St. Leo’s beekeeper connects parish, community and care for creation

Rick Samyn, lead beekeeper of L’Honey Project at St. Leo the Great Parish, teaches Franciscan volunteers how to inspect a hive. Photo: Courtesy Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain Rick Samyn, lead beekeeper of L’Honey Project at St. Leo the Great Parish, teaches Franciscan volunteers how to inspect a hive. Photo: Courtesy Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain

TACOMA In August, members of St. Leo the Great Parish’s Family Social Committee descended on L’Arche Tahoma Hope Farm to pick blackberries destined for a special purpose.

The sweet harvest is the main ingredient in blackberry honey jam, produced by the parish’s social ministry program known as L’Honey Project.

“We love the fact that we’re doing something fun but very much helpful to other people,” said Adriana Julian, a four-year member of the FSC.

L’Honey brings together a beekeeper, his apprentice and an assortment of volunteers to tend bees, make and sell products from the hives, provide meaningful work for vulnerable adults and promote care for the environment.

For Rick Samyn — St. Leo’s pastoral assistant for social ministry, and its lead beekeeper — the most important aspect of L’Honey is linking the bee’s life and work with the ideal of a more compassionate and connected world as outlined in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.

“Bees work in harmony with each other,” Samyn said, and “are probably one of the few organisms on the planet that survive and thrive by doing no harm to any other creature. They take nectar and pollinate — it’s a relationship of mutual benefit.”

Working with L’Honey Project gives volunteers an opportunity to build relationships, connect with the natural world and learn “how we can create behaviors that allow us to live in harmony like the bees,” Samyn said. “We are all members of the body of Christ. We need to live as if that is true.”

L'Honey beekeepingRick Samyn, lead beekeeper of L’Honey at St. Leo the Great Parish in Tacoma, examines a frame of bees during the summer hive inspection. Assisting him is Annessa Stahler, a Franciscan volunteer. Photo: Courtesy Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain

Humble beginnings

L’Honey Project grew out of St. Leo Parish’s involvement with L’Arche Tahoma Hope. The community of people with and without developmental disabilities was started in 1977 by two of St. Leo’s Jesuit priests, Fathers David Rothrock and Peter Byrne. The community farm was established in 1982 to provide work for the “core” members (those with disabilities).

In 2009, St. Leo’s Food Connection director, Kevin Glackin-Coley, was applying for a grant to establish an orchard at the farm, an effort to provide fresh produce for food bank clients and a chance for them to visit the farm. Samyn, who has a background in sustainable agriculture, helped write the grant and included a request for a few beehives to pollinate the orchard.

From the original two hives on L’Arche farm, L’Honey has expanded to nearly 40 hives spread across six apiaries (groups of hives) located on the farm as well as on land owned by parishioners or friends.

Besides pollinating crops, the hives produce honey (800 pounds this year), and beeswax that is made into candles and soap. Samyn and his apprentice, parishioner John Clemens, collect the frames of honey from the hives and take them to the parish “honey house,” where the honey is extracted from the honeycomb.

Next, the honey goes to L’Arche farm, where core members help to jar and label it. Along with candles and soap, and the blackberry honey jam made at St. Leo’s, the honey is sold at the farm, local farmers markets and Tacoma-area churches. A dollar of every purchase helps support L’Arche farm, while the rest helps keep L’Honey Project running.

L'Honey beekeepingSigns announce the L’Honey Project, a collaboration of St. Leo the Great Parish and L’Arche Tahoma Hope farm. Photo: Courtesy Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain

‘Passion for pollinators’

Whether at St. Leo’s or in the broader community, “I love to share my passion for pollinators,” Samyn said.

Under Samyn’s mentorship, Clemens said, he has learned how bees “cooperate with one another and are dedicated to the wellbeing of the hive. They’re selfless,” added Clemens, a member of St. Leo’s pastoral council. “It’s not about the individual, but about the community.”

“I think Rick does absolutely extraordinary work,” said St. Leo’s pastor, Jesuit Father Stephen Lantry. “We’re very fortunate to have him — the whole community is.”

At the parish, Samyn said, he links bees to the liturgy by noting their work produces beeswax for the paschal candle. “The bee has been illuminating our places of worship for thousands of years,” he said. And bees are twice mentioned in the “Exsultet,” the Easter proclamation. Those connections provide a starting point for talking about the way bees live and work and why they are an example for humans in caring for creation.

Beyond St. Leo’s, Samyn started beehives and beekeeping clubs at two specialized Tacoma public high schools and is working with them to develop curriculum on bees. The students come to St. Leo’s kitchen in the fall to make blackberry honey jam.

L'Honey beekeepingMembers of St. Leo the Great Parish picked blackberries at L’Arche Tahoma Hope farm in late August. The berries were made into a popular jam, which is sold to support the farm and the L’Honey Project, a social ministry of the parish. Photo: Rick Samyn

And every summer, a few Franciscan volunteers from the No Risk, No Gain program travel to Tacoma to work with Samyn for a week, staying with the retired Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia at Tacoma’s St. Ann Convent.

The more Samyn talks about the honeybees, the more the volunteers see how the bee connects us all, said Sara Marks, the program’s director. “God is speaking to us in the smallest little creature in the hive,” she said. “Do we listen?”

Such relationship building “is the very nature of sharing faith-in-action and embracing the universal truths embedded in the Catholic faith and in Laudato Si’,” Samyn said. 

Michelle Bruno

Michelle Bruno is a member of Kent’s Holy Spirit Parish. Contact her at VadeInPace1@outlook.com.