With spring on the horizon, Cathy Pearson reflects on the joy that the garden at St. Stephen, Maple has brought to parishioners and members of the wider community.
Establishing “sacred space to nurture body, mind and spirit” wasn’t a priority for the Rev. Jeff and Becky Potter as they surveyed the dense forest beyond the rectory’s garden gate. It was 2016 and they had just arrived at the new church plant of St. Stephen, Maple.
Neglected for over a decade, the forest included dead trees that needed to be felled for safety reasons, and overgrowth that needed to be removed. The wildflowers could stay – snowdrops and blue Siberian squill, likely planted years earlier by the then incumbent and an avid gardener, the Rev. Dr. Ramsay Armitage.
During a clean-up day months later, the volunteers had a revelation. “We were all standing back there, and we started to realize just how much potential was held in that space” recalls Becky.
Plans unfolded. Karen Shea, the church’s pastor of outreach and a garden expert, created the master design. She laid surveyor flags where natural pathways and areas for worship, contemplation and a workable garden were envisioned. She was careful to respect natural areas and the animals, insects and birds that had come to depend on the space.
Tieg Dawe, the sexton, built perimeter fencing and summoned heavy equipment to clear swaths, which were then covered with landscape fabric and topped with specialty mulch to support those with mobility issues. A carpenter by trade, Tieg designed and constructed a raised platform with overhead pergola, slant-backed benches, a gabled pavilion sheltering one of two 18-foot tables and planter boxes.
Once complete, we were anxious to share our beautiful new garden, and word spread that there was fun to be had at the Saturday morning program, welcoming local children and parents, rain or shine. From planting vegetables to building bat barns and garden crafts, there was something for everyone. Neighbours often dropped by, coffee cup in hand, to check out the action and learn about bee-keeping, storybook illustration and earthworm husbandry.
Another blessing, weather permitting, was praising God in the garden, thanks to a portable keyboard and sound system powered by lengths of extension cord. As often as possible, we held weekly church dinners in the garden too, because food always tasted better there.
Summertime found us inviting community members into our space for annual fairs and music concerts. Gracing our worship stage was local, world-renowned Celtic guitarist Tony McManus. There was nothing like being serenaded on a balmy evening in the open air under the stars.
If it’s true that “you reap what you sow,” then it’s not at all surprising that St. Stephen’s has been literally showered with blessings from our hallowed garden space. Naturally, all this came to a screeching halt last spring, when restrictions sadly shut our community garden gates to any type or size of parish or public gatherings. And so it remains.
The invaluable handful of committed volunteers have continued diligently tending, watering and weeding since then. It’s amazing how quickly nature attempts to reclaim itself and take back the established garden space for its own when unused for long periods. And wildlife abounds!
Perhaps it’s time to turn some patch of ground laying fallow into your very own church community garden. Masters of their respective crafts, Karen and Tieg are available to offer sage advice and can be reached at St. Stephen’s.
The Rev. Jeff and Becky Potter now minister in the Diocese of Niagara.