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California and the West

Olives Yield Nuns a Harvest of Good Feelings

Convent: Bay Area sisters resume the collection of fruit on their land after 35 years, with neighbors pitching in.


FREMONT, Calif. — Strolling through the olive groves at her Bay Area convent, Sister Jane Rudolph inspected the branches above, still heavy with clusters of ripened fruit, and beamed at the prospect of yet another harvest.

"Look above you; the trees are loaded," said Rudolph, mother house administrator of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose. "Oh, there's so much more! What a wonderful olive adventure!"

In December, for the first time in 35 years, the nuns decided to revive their annual tradition of picking olives from the 200 trees that dot their lush 42-acre property, then crushing and pressing them into extra-virgin olive oil.

For years the sisters had talked about harvesting again, even as they watched the ripe fruit fall. This year, they decided to act.

"We just realized the growing value of olive oil, and our own responsibility to use what has been provided to us," said Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, 62. "That, and we found enough people willing to help."

The nuns shared their decision to harvest at local churches, elementary schools and meetings of the City Council and Chamber of Commerce. A volunteer work force quickly emerged.

"The whole thing went faster than we were ready for," Hennessy said. Since December, the nuns have harvested four times, and are contemplating a fifth.

"We've got gallons of oil waiting to be bottled, and we still haven't decided on a label, bottle size, price, or if there should be a first-year limited edition," she said. "Next year I think we'll make a business plan."

The sisters are no strangers to the olive trade. Their trees are as old as their convent, which was built in 1824. (Some say the groves were planted by Franciscan padres, who built neighboring Mission San Jose--Alameda County's oldest building--in 1797).

The nuns first harvested in 1905, sending postulants and novices into the groves with buckets and ladders. They crushed and pressed the olives with their own equipment, bottling about 400 gallons each year. Most was given to benefactors or used for convent cooking. In 1945, 60 gallons were shipped to Honolulu for sacramental services for dying World War II soldiers.

But the strenuous work took its toll. In 1965, the sisters--who number about 100--abandoned the business to concentrate on their religious studies school, music school and kindergarten. They gave the olive press to the Camaldolese Benedictine monks of Big Sur and, for several years, allowed the monks to prune their trees and keep the olives.

"I used to watch them from my window taking the olives off the property and feel such a sense of guilt," Hennessy said. "After that, no one touched the trees at all."

Today, many of the nuns are aging, and about 35 live in the convent's care center. The convent, too, is in need of repair.

"The elderly sisters are always complaining that there's not enough heat," said Rudolph. "The plumbing needs to be redone, and the Fire Department has told us to install sprinklers and smoke alarms."

After searching for ways to raise money, the sisters found the answer sprinkled across the well-manicured lawns and squashed underfoot.

So the adventure began anew. Each harvest has drawn a volunteer crew of local residents, (including, on one occasion, an entire girls high school basketball team) ready to pick and bucket the olives.

"When a local construction company heard that I had to drive the olives to Modesto myself, and that last time the transmission began to burn because we piled too many in back of the pickup, they insisted on doing the driving for us," Rudolph said.

And that's not all. Third-generation farmer Dan Sciabica crushes and presses the olives after they arrive at his Modesto farm, then bottles the oil, all free of charge.

"The sisters are such wonderful people," Sciabica said. "They've done so much to help us. Now that they are getting older and need some help of their own, it's a privilege to lend them a hand."

So far, he has bottled 135 gallons of oil for the sisters, a drop in the bucket compared with the 321,000 gallons bottled statewide last year. Still, he said, there's something special about the nuns' oil.

"It's got a sweet and fruity flavor that's truly unique, and we're not sure why," said Sciabica. "The trees come from a Spanish strain that no longer exists in Europe. Plus, they're grown on holy ground."

Mention this to Rudolph and she smiles.

"All 505 of our past sisters are buried here," she said. "The ground is saturated in prayer."

If that weren't enough, each sister has adopted a tree and prays for its bountiful yield.

"This whole thing has gotten all of us excited again," Hennessy said. "We pass around old photos and share stories of our harvests years ago."

Rudolph said the olive oil won't be available until November, when the sisters hold their annual holiday boutique. She hasn't decided if it will be sold in stores.

"At first I wasn't sure if we were up to this," said Rudolph. "But then I said, 'Let's go for it. Let's be good servants to the Earth.' And, look how our prayer circle of friends has grown."

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