When Zoe Roberts tells people she is a dog ranger, it’s often met with a…
There’s somebody I’d like you to meet.
Sister Veronica is a 97-year-old nun from Hackett who will snap you out of your COVID slump by the time you’ve finished reading this article. Her energy levels and joy of life are divine inspiration.
When I caught up with Sister Veronica she was just finishing up a four-hour stint at a community garden (Canberra Organic Growers Society) in north Canberra. She does this daily.
Veronica also attends mass three times a week (two services are 6.30 am) and volunteers with the disabled. Did I mention she’s 97?
“I love gardening,” she says. “I’m not well educated academically but ecology is my area. I was provided with a bare concrete slab in a community garden and I built a brick wall around it by myself and put in drainage pipes, then on top of that a weed mat and then straw and soil.”
Veronica lugged the bags of soil one by one, by herself. She still drives (the only reason she attends the doctors once a year is to renew her driver’s license) and she lives independently with a fellow sister of the Religious Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
As we tour her thriving garden—her pride and joy ever since she planted it at the end of 2019—we were dwarfed by her enormous snow pea plants. I ask her what makes her garden flourish so abundantly.
“I gathered the soil from the stables on Barton Highway for free and I also go out to a mushroom farm near Murrumbateman and gather mushroom compost for nothing,” she explains. ‘And I use my own compost and horse manure.”
She does a mean barter on the side. When a man from EPIC found out her age, he offered her as much soil as she wanted. “So I made him three dozen ANZAC biscuits in return for four bags of soil.”
She hands me a celery stick to chew on as we survey her bounty, which includes bunches of fresh, organic celery, snow peas, broad beans, radishes, lettuce, beetroot, garlic, leeks and silverbeet. “I have no need to shop for most vegetables, I eat everything I grow.”
Veronica seems a natural in the garden, little wonder given her idyllic upbringing in New Zealand, where she worked on her family’s farm since the age of four until she was 23.
“During the war my sister and I ran the farm with my dad and I did everything that a man does on the farm,” she said.
“I ploughed with a two-horse plough, I built haystacks, I harvested, mustered sheep and cattle, baled wool in the shearing shed and milked cows by hand. There was no machinery, no electricity in those days. I went to bed with a candle.
“I grew up with a great deal of freedom and I loved working. I grew up naturally understanding life, nature and life in the raw. I naturally was very practical and knew how to sew, made all my own clothes, knew how to garden. I loved the soil, loved the earth, loved nature.”
After a stint as a trained nurse, Veronica entered the convent when she was about 30. There she did domestic work—cooking for 200 students—and learned to make her own bread and butter and survive on whatever was on the farm as there were no supermarkets nearby. Supplies were only delivered by train from Auckland twice a year.
The religious order Veronica belonged to was an enclosed monastic order with a rule of silence, which she maintained for 20 years. Then in the 60s, it converted to an apostolic order, where she could go out and socialise in public.
At the age of 50, she decided to complete a diploma in primary school teaching, which she did for a few years, before moving on to working with people with a disability. This took her to the United Kingdom and Canada.
Veronica also had a stint in Western Australia where she established a garden for Indigenous Australians near Geraldton.
Veronica only retired at the age of 90, the same year she travelled to Germany (sans travel insurance).
She shows no signs of slowing down. The other day Veronica was at a friend’s 75th birthday party where she had a “dance to some jiggy music”. “I was the envy of everyone because I was the oldest one there.”
Her true passion, however, is gardening. “I love the energy that gives me,” she says. “It’s a community garden and the life that I get from the school nearby, I get more energy and feel more part of the school energy…”
“A class came out the other day and it was almost as if I’d given a class to these young ones who wanted to plant things and know what they were. It’s a continuation of my education, my ability to educate outside the classroom.”
“I’m still a nun—you might call me a funny nun but don’t call me late for breakfast.”
Canberra Organic Growers Society Inc (COGS) operates 12 community gardens in the ACT. For more information visit cogs.asn.au