Our parish has undergone renovations in recent months that necessitated the removal of certain large foundational plantings so that we could re-side and repaint the buildings. Shrubs had been planted too close to the foundations and had grown too large over time. At places, our church was starting to look like one big shrub with a roof. Consequently, we have directed our new landscaping efforts to planting more diminutive plants that will not grow to obscure the building.
We have looked at historic churchyards and monastery gardens as well as to nature for our inspiration, and so decided to plant flowers and herbs, heirloom plants and native plants. Once completed, we hope the gardens will be beautiful and not too difficult to maintain. Of course, the gardens will need weeding. Alas, there is nothing perfect this side of heaven!
Mary’s Garden is on the western side of the Parish Office. This is not a new garden, but we have worked hard to reclaim it from a wild, neglected, overgrown mass of shrubs. Cutting down two large trees, pulling out half the shrubs, and severely cutting back the remaining hedges have allowed the light to come in to what was once a hidden and dark place. We have planted flowers and repainted the statue of the Virgin to be a more natural color of stone. We hung wind chimes and added the monument to the unborn. Now, folks want to visit this garden. They scoot in there to complete a phone call before they go into church, or to say a prayer, to find a quiet place to talk, or just enjoy nature for a moment. That is how it should be.
The oak trees between Mary’s Garden and the side parking lot may eventually grow too large and have to be removed, but we hope not. We are also hoping the magnolias are dwarf ones and so will grow no larger! We may need to replace a bench, and certainly the pea gravel needs weeding periodically, but overall, this has become a pretty little spot. We thank those who are helping us keep this garden tame and pretty.
The Saint Fiacre Garden
In front of the Parish Office is the Saint Fiacre garden with a small statue of Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners. Parishioners may recall the many tall shrubs that obscured the windows and created the illusion of a near impenetrable wall of dark holly bushes. Now the new raised beds have become a place for much lower flowering plants. Our volunteer gardeners have planted various flowers that will assure us multiple seasons of blooms. The first year or two, this little garden may seem sparse, but our hopes are to have a great many flowers there in time.
The Parish Office entrance was greatly improved by a new door, stacked stone, and a couple of lanterns. In the corner to the right of the door, we now have a little bench on some pavers and flowers all around. These little touches are meant to tie the office entrance to nature and make it more welcoming. We hope these little gardens will become places where folks will want to take the family photos in years to come.
The Saint Francis Garden
On the Refuge Road side of the church, we have started the process of reorganizing the area and will soon begin planting. We pulled out a great many large shrubs and conifer trees that were overshadowing and encroaching upon our church. They had been planted too close to one another and to the building, and consequently, things were dark and claustrophobic over there. Another consideration is that, once our stained glass windows are in, we don’t need big bushy trees to block the sun from coming through the stained glass.
Our hopes are to make this side of the church more welcoming and the entrances more gracious as one goes into Fr. Denis Hall and our classrooms. We plan to widen the sidewalks and add curves in the paths. We want these gardens to look more natural than the garden around the Parish Office, so we will use stones and native plants and imitate something of a woodland or meadow landscape with ferns and dwarf rhododendrons, with grasses and wildflowers. We will also throw into the mix creeping phlox, lilies, and hostas. Naturally, we want irises, as they are flowers we associate with the Virgin Mary. We might even try to plant hyssop or other biblical herbs, too. This side of the church is a bit shady, so we may have to experiment over the years to get the right combination of plants, but the idea is to open up the entrances and make them more beautiful. Of course, we’ve purchased a statue of Saint Francis to add to these more natural gardens, too!
Looking Back for Inspiration
A churchyard is a place with its own history. Because old churchyards can be so ancient, they sometimes became their own unique ecosystem, as a piece of land that is, in its own way, primal. In England and Ireland, for example, the churchyards can have thousand year old yew trees growing among the tombstones. This is because yew trees are poisonous, but the wood from the yew tree was necessary to make longbows, so by growing the yews safely behind the churchyard walls, they protected the village’s roaming livestock from being accidentally poisoned.
Sometimes you can find an ancient Lebanon cedar growing in a churchyard and one wonders what pilgrim brought it back from the Holy Land a thousand years ago. It was in the mission gardens of California where olive trees were grown, as olives were needed by the Church to make the holy oils used in the sacraments. And the beautiful wooden churches of Poland and Ukraine will often have churchyards too, sometimes with stacked stonewalls. Here the pussy willow might be grown to substitute for palms used on Palm Sunday. And in these churchyards, most likely the Paschal Fires were lit for the great Vigil of Easter.
Cult, Culture, and Cultivation
The original meaning of the word “cult” was not “a group of misguided, zealous, religious, crazy people,” but rather “an act of worship.” Real culture (not the silly secular nonsense that passes for “pop” culture, but real culture) is based on ritual or religion. Western culture is, at its core, Catholic culture, and the further our culture strays from Catholicism and God, the more superficial it becomes.
Monks brought with them the cult of the Mass. They taught our pagan ancestors about the Lord and drew them into the mystery of the Mass. But these monks not only brought the Mass, literacy, music, the idea of worship, and the Christian calendar, but also ideas about gardening and cultivating crops (the word “cultivation” has within it that same word “cult”).
In one of our gardens, we have a statue of Saint Fiacre who was one such monk from Ireland who lived as a hermit in what is today France. There he built an oratory dedicated to the Virgin and established a hospice. Saint Fiacre’s whole life promoted the Gospel of Christ, and he greeted all strangers with hospitality. He was also known as a wise man who understood the healing ways of herbs. (Monks and nuns were our first pharmacists, and in places in Italy today, the village pharmacy is still sometimes built into the wall of the local friary or monastery, just beyond the garden).
Fiacre labored long in his garden that helped him help others. Besides medicines to help cure the locals who came to them for help, the monks, friars, and nuns would also use their gardens to grow flowers for the church, grapes for the wine, and herbs for the kitchen. These gardens were an invitation to pray and reflect on the beauty of God’s creations. So monastery or abbey gardens of old might have been conceived of as a kind of paradise, reflecting the world transformed by order and grace, and surrounded by prayer. We don’t have monks or nuns at our Parish, and our churchyard is not ancient, but we hope to evoke some of our long Catholic history, and maybe add to it, through our churchyard gardens here at OLM.
Ora et Labora
The monks who brought the faith to our ancestors were called both to pray and to work (ora et labora). The monastery was not a place for idle hands and even the most educated was supposed to put his hands to the plow. Many of us know that gardening can be very therapeutic and even prayerful. Gardeners are respectful of creation and work within creation and its seasons to cultivate the earth. Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden, and many Christians use their love of flowers and plants to reclaim a little piece of that paradise, to the extent it can be done.
If any group wants to claim one of the gardens and be their attendants, or if any individuals want to volunteer to help, we would love to have you help us maintain these beautiful gardens. In closing, we will end with a prayer that may help you in your own gardens at home.
O God, Source and Giver of all things,
Who manifests your infinite majesty, power, and goodness in the earth about us,
We give you honor and glory.
For the sun and rain, for the fruits of our fields,
For the increase of our herds and flocks, we thank you.
For the enrichment of our souls with divine grace, we are grateful.
Lord of the harvest, graciously accept us and the fruits of our toil,
In union with Christ your Son, as atonement for our sins,
For the growth of your Church, for peace and charity in our homes, and for the salvation of all.