Healing garden offers hope for saddened hearts

Green space created for reflection, remembering city's lost children

February 13, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

When the Children's Peace Memorial Garden is completed this spring, a winding river of grass will flow from the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in North Baltimore toward downtown in a natural expression of grief, joy and concern.

Within the garden, a footbridge will cross the grass river to a marble relief of a slumbering lion and lamb. As it grows, a new American elm will offer ample shade, and cement medallions made by children will commemorate the lives of peers who have died violently in Baltimore.

The garden is intended as "a very simple, meditative, healing space," says Sarah Wolfenden, director of the cathedral's Children's Peace Center. The garden, to be planted with native grasses, wildflowers and other perennials and annuals, will occupy a spot close to the bustling corners where St. Paul and Charles streets intersect University Parkway.

The garden, which will be open to the public, is a way for the church to "take our concern inside the building and get it out in a visible way," says the Very Rev. Van Gardner, dean of the cathedral. Groundbreaking for the memorial takes place today after a 5 p.m. performance of John Rutter's Requiem in memory of the city's lost children.

Inspiration for the Children's Peace Memorial Garden grew out of the church's ministry to children killed or traumatized by the city's culture of violence, a toll that hasn't abated in recent years. In 2004, 31 Baltimore children and teenagers became homicide victims.

Jacqueline Dorsey, a Peace Center board member whose 19-year-old nephew was murdered 12 years ago, is adamant that the memorial be a "living" one that doesn't dwell exclusively on loss. For those who may be "agitated within," the garden is a place to "enjoy the flowers, sound of the birds, touch a leaf and realize how blessed we are," she says. "If God is in all those things, surely God is in us as well."

'Brighter and brighter'

The church's ministry to children developed from the idea to light a single candle during Sunday services for James Smith III, a 3-year-old who was shot as he sat on his mother's lap in a Baltimore barbershop in 1997. His death "affected a lot of folks in the congregation," Wolfenden says. "It made them think that the children [who died] needed to be remembered by name on a regular basis."

Since then, parishioners have prayed weekly for children who have succumbed to violence. Any youth who has died during the previous week is named during the liturgy. A candle illuminated in that child's memory is carried to the "Children of the Light" altar at the rear of the sanctuary. There, it burns among others lit in the name of all children who have perished so far in a given year.

Because so many die as the year progresses, the altar "gets brighter and brighter and brighter," Wolfenden says.

Outside the sanctuary, the congregation attends to children through the Peace Center, established in 1998 by Wolfenden and others. Once a month, disadvantaged city kids gather to do art projects, cook and learn conflict resolution skills.

"Children can't go on to lead productive, creative lives unless they have a visceral knowledge of God's creative spirit within them and what it means to feel valued and loved," Wolfenden says.

Avery Burrell, 11, is a regular Peace Center participant. A resident of a West Baltimore neighborhood where guns are commonplace, Avery says he has learned a lot about settling conflicts. "One time in school, me and my friend got into an argument. I tried to basically work things out with him," he says.

His involvement with the Peace Center has enabled Avery to visualize his future, he says. "Now, when I grow up, I can look forward to reaching my goals of being an architect," he says.

A place for thinking

The Peace Memorial Garden carries the cathedral's ministry into a realm where spirituality and nature merge. As specified by the TKF Foundation of Annapolis, which funded the project, the garden must be a green space that offers sanctuary and encourages reflection. On its grounds, the cathedral is providing a safe space where visitors can "sit and think about things beyond themselves," says Mary Wyatt, TKF's executive director.

Like all projects supported by TKF, including numerous labyrinths, gardens and parks in Baltimore and Washington, the Peace Memorial will include a rustic bench and a wooden box containing pen and paper so visitors may record their thoughts.

As they designed the garden, Baltimore landscape architects Aaron Teeter and Joan Floura envisioned a "river of life" that began as a narrow spring and widened as it opened into the city, Teeter says. "We couldn't really do water, so we decided it would be grass."

The assignment prompted the partners to "think about more issues we probably wouldn't have questioned, such as children dying," Teeter says. That "got us to really think about the city in general, and the problems and solutions [concerned citizens] might be able to come up with."

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