Women in the Mary Garden feel a flowering of the spirit

June 04, 1995|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff Correspondent

Annapolis - The women of the Mary Garden often arrive in early evening, when the sun has cooled and the chores of their secular lives are finished. But they don't come to meditate among the flowers. They come to work.

Bending their tired backs to weed or plant, they hear hymns drift from the stained-glass windows of St. Mary's Church as the choir rehearses. Sailboats whisper in and out of Spa Creek. Birds gather for an evening bath in the fountain that burbles at the sandaled, granite feet of Mary and Jesus.

"And you really feel that this must be what heaven is like," says Laura Van Geffen. If it is heaven, she adds, the saints and angels are laughing at her.

"I feel as if I've been tricked," she says as she wipes her sweaty forehead with the back of a garden-gloved hand. "I'm Catholic, but I never understood the veneration of Mary. I used to pray, 'I don't get it. Show me how to love your mother.'

"Then this fell in my lap." Mrs. Van Geffen drives a spade into the soft, spring earth where another rosebush will be planted.

"I would have preferred a revelation to years of backbreaking work."

*

Somewhere between the muddy reality of tilled soil and the chaste beauty of the woman for whom the flowers are named, there lies the Mary Garden.

The first public garden dedicated to the Virgin seems to have been the Garden of Our Lady at St. Joseph's Church in Woods Hole, Mass., in 1932.

John B. Stokes, who in 1951 began a spare-time project called Mary's Gardens in Philadelphia, now lives in Massachusetts and remains the official arbiter and historian. He says there are only five public Mary Gardens of note in the world, and only two in the United States, at Woods Hole and here. The St. Mary's garden is the largest one in a parish, and Mr. Stokes has praised it for its beauty and its spiritual roots.

The garden is tucked behind St. Mary's Church, hardly known beyond the high walls of the 300-year-old church and rectory that protect it. The breezes of nearby Spa Creek rustle it softly, like a prayer. Even parishioners who pass through it on their way to the parking lot after Mass are not all aware of its symbolism.

For the handful of women of St. Mary's who tend it, this patch of earth represents something between God and gardening. It is a spiritual journey that needs to be watered and weeded. It is a meditation on the devotion of Christ's mother that requires 70 bags of mulch twice a year.

"There is a tranquillity here that keeps us coming back in the middle of our crazy lives," says Kayla Lehmann. The hedge trimmer she grips two-handed like a sword is a sharp contrast to her words. "We all have weeds at home, you know."

The Mary Garden began as a seed in the determined mind of Nan Sears, a St. Mary's parishioner who, at 76, is not much taller than the hollyhock spikes she tends. (In the Mary Garden, they are called St. Joseph's staff.) She had been waiting since 1945, when a garden-club lecturer first told her of Mary Gardens, to create such a church garden.

"Having grown up with a family who loved the woods and the wilds, it is part of me," says Mrs. Sears. "I don't ever walk through a garden that I haven't thought of her. I feel she is there, a part of everything beautiful in the outdoors. I wanted a Mary Garden as a tribute to her and to be closer to her."

In 1989, the pastor of St. Mary's, the Rev. John Murray, gave Mrs. Sears his blessing to turn a patch of weeds and gum wrappers behind the church into such a tribute. "Just don't ask me for any money," he said cheerfully.

Tony Dove, curator of the gardens at London Towne Publik House in Edgewater, and Mrs. Van Geffen, a heavy-duty volunteer who, at 50, has the freedom to garden that only older children can give you, joined Mrs. Sears in designing the garden.

Tons of topsoil were moved in, and a statue was commissioned. All of this was done before Mrs. Sears and Mrs. Van Geffen, at cocktail parties and in church, had collected the $35,000 to pay for it.

"We had to believe that she wanted it there," says Mrs. Sears.

In 1991, Father Murray dressed in his finest vestments and sprinkled the garden with holy water. It was Sept. 8, the feast of Mary's birth, the traditional day for blessing the harvest and the seeds for the coming spring.

Today, the Mary Garden is full and mature. Colors move through it in waves as the seasons change. It is a backdrop for photos of brides and first Holy Communion children. City workers eat lunch there, St. Mary's schoolchildren plant Mother's Day flowers there. And mourners weep there.

"One time, it is just a pretty place. Another time, it hits you hard because of something that is going on in your life," says Mrs. Sears.

"It is a thinking place," says Mrs. Lehmann, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom from Annapolis. "I have been working here when people come to sit. And you can feel their hearts breaking."

A statue at the center

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