Transformative moments in faith history occurred in gardens: The Garden of Eden was a place of protection, freedom and then sin; Jesus faced his greatest struggle before surrendering to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane.
For parish communities, spiritual sustenance is foremost within church walls in the Eucharist, but outside the sanctuary, parish gardens also nourish faith life. These set-apart spaces, along with outdoor shrines and statues, inspire and focus meditation and prayer and can serve as memorials. Some parish gardens yield fresh fruits and vegetables for the hungry in our midst.
Here’s a sampling of the shrines and gardens in the Archdiocese of Portland.
At Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Cottage Grove, a plot once filled with dried weeds and grass was turned into a rosary garden. Blue glass beads dot the pavement, one for the Our Father and 10 for the Hail Mary. The walkway is flanked by flowers and leads to a large black cross.
The garden grew out of tragedy. In 2006, parishioner Nancy Jeneane Smith Wooden and her three young children died in a car accident. Wooden’s parents, Joetta and Kent Smith, helped create the rosary garden as a way to navigate their profound loss and honor their daughter and granddaughters’ devotion to the prayer.
“It was healing for us to do something to show our love for our family and to do something they loved,” said Joetta.
The garden was dedicated in 2008 and “everyone helped; it became everyone’s garden,” Joetta said.
Nearly 150 miles north, another garden memorializes through a link to Mary. In 1998, Eilene Curtiss and her husband, David, planted 80 rosebushes in front of their parish, St. Michael the Archangel Church in Sandy. Eilene, past president of the Portland Rose Society, knows and loves the flower “that was Mary’s favorite and whose petals were used to make rosaries,” she said.
The couple selected floribunda roses, “which are not as showy as other kinds,” said Eilene. Planted in rows of red, yellow, pink, purple and white, the roses initially were tended by David. When he died in 2011, Eilene turned the space into a memorial garden. Parishioners may buy a new bush or select one of the current bushes in memory of a loved one. Each memorial includes an engraved wooden plaque.
“It’s a lovely place that has a lot of meaning to people as they walk into church,” said Eilene.
In 2004, the garden was named the best church garden by the Royal Rosarians.
Statues focusing the spirit
In the mid-1990s, the Knights of Columbus at Star of the Sea Parish in Brookings built a Marian grotto dedicated to unborn babies. It buttresses a grove of trees and parishioners approach it across an expansive lawn.
The grotto is dear to the heart of longtime parishioner Liz Wimberley, 88. “There is such quiet and reverence there … most of the time,” said Wimberley, who recalled years ago shoo-shooing her religious education students off the stone walls that enticed small climbers.
There’s a nearby bench where “if you’re feeling depressed or down, you can sit on to meditate and think beyond your personal problems, because someone, Mary, is listening,” Wimberley said.
In Southeast Portland, parishioners of the Church of Korean Martyrs pray at the foot of a St. Andrew Kim Taegon statue, a commanding figure facing the church with its back to busy Powell Boulevard. The first native Korean priest, the saint was tortured and martyred in 1839; he was beatified in 1925.
The statue helps us remember to keep in our minds “why [the martyrs] sacrificed their lives,” said Seong You, administrative assistant at the parish.
Next to the adoration chapel at St. John the Baptist Church in Milwaukie stands a brightly painted figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, erected seven years ago. The statue stands about 5 feet tall, and at its feet is a small figure of St. Juan Diego.
“We have a large Hispanic community here, and for a long time have celebrated Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day [Dec. 12], but we wanted a statue to honor it,” said Pat Raschio, pastoral associate.
Visible from the street, the shrine to Our Lady looks upon the wider community, perhaps drawing some in from the sidewalk to pray.
Reaping what’s sown
At parish vegetable gardens across the archdiocese, volunteers pick up spades and shovels to spend time in creation, feed the hungry and enjoy fellowship. The gardens’ bounties are large and diverse, including everything from corn, tomatoes, greens and squash to beets, berries and rhubarb. Herbs are in the mix, along with flowers to adorn the church altars.
Hope Garden at St. Francis Parish in Sherwood first was planted about four years ago and supplies the parish food pantry. Like other parish gardens, it’s volunteer-run and a couple master gardeners offer their expertise.
Anna Wilson, social action coordinator at St. Francis, said they sometimes grow vegetables lesser-known to pantry clients, such as kale or kohlrabi “a kind of alien looking vegetable,” laughed Wilson. But when given recipes — for the kohlrabi, oil, garlic, salt and pepper, “people often really like it and came back for more,” she said.
This year will be the seventh growing season for the garden at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha and around the same for the garden at Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland. Both supply fresh vegetables to their respective St. Vincent de Paul ministries.
Active garden volunteer Sally Perry at St. Elizabeth said her parish tries to select crops that clients will find familiar; they’ve included plots of okra, for example, a staple for some of the community’s African families, a number from Somalia.
The parish offered salsa-making classes, and Perry hopes to organize one on how to create pesto from the garden’s basil.
Perry said the garden yields ecumenism. Non-Catholic neighbors have donated tomato plants and pear trees, and some sip their morning coffee atop a garden bench.
Volunteers at Holy Redeemer kicked off this year’s growing season last month by doubling the size of their garden.
Holy Cross Father John Dougherty — who heads the environmentally forward-thinking parish, complete with bioswales to collect rainwater runoff — said the garden gives the schoolchildren a chance to see how food is grown.
For most of the parish gardeners, the most rewarding part of their effort is producing fresh fruits and veggies for families who otherwise might not be able to afford them.
“The people working really hard to keep the garden beautiful are not reaping the food they’ve sown but they are reaping other benefits,” said Wilson.
“It allows us to assist people in a very profound way,” added Father Dougherty. “To take a little seed and nurture that and know it’s going on someone else’s plate is pretty remarkable.”