(Congregation in the Labyrinth, Photo Credits: St John the Baptist Anglican Church)
St. John the Baptist Anglican church in the rural part of Ottawa, offers four acres of peaceful greenspace in a village setting. The church’s Quiet Garden and Labyrinth are tucked away off the street in a sheltered setting that provides visitors with a tranquil space to do walking meditation, connect with nature, relax, rest and seek spiritual comfort.
The current church of St John the Baptist was built in 1865 and is situated on a large property in the Village of Richmond, southwest of urban Ottawa. The four acres of the church property, includes the church and rectory, a cemetery space and a small wood lot that had been partially cleared and used in the early years as a pasture and stable area for horses. The property also has a stream running along the north corner that feeds into the Jock River.
The idea for the labyrinth and garden came from the combination of a few synchronicities: church maintenance staff reported on a clearing in the wooded area that offered potential for a new garden, the new priest for the parish brought with him, from his previous position, an interest in labyrinths as a resource for prayer and meditation, while another key volunteer member found that they had extra time on their hands to be able to support a new outdoor project.
This available garden space was discovered after the 1998 ice storm when staff was out clearing fallen trees and cutting dead brush. The area was overgrown with apple trees, raspberries and hawthorn but there was a defined area where a grass meadow had once been that offered the potential for an outdoor space. The labyrinth project fit well with the initial goals for this newly created garden team also – it could be a low maintenance project that would offer ministry to both the congregation and the community and it could also be started with a small budget. It could stay small or grow if there was interest, resources and time.
(Meadow beside Quiet Garden with Bird House, Photo Credits: St John the Baptist Anglican Church)
To start the project, the team did some research on labyrinths and sought some design help. They visited the Galilee Retreat Centre in Arnprior which had already installed an outdoor labyrinth. Those at the Centre who were knowledgeable about the installation were very helpful, providing advice and guidance to the St John’s garden team. The St. John’s team decided that they would create an eleven circuit Chartres design for their labyrinth – 53.5 feet in diameter. They also hired a designer through the Anglican diocese (that specialized in landscapes for faith communities) to provide a landscape design for the space.
The first year of working in the space, the focus was on the labyrinth. Laying it out took time and they could not involve too many people until it was marked out and tasks could be assigned. Initially it was four volunteers who marked the centre and then drew out the key concentric circles that were part of the labyrinth design. After this other volunteers joined in to help with the physical labour, with the key members ensuring that the work went as smooth as possible and that the pathways were all level. Red paver stones were used to mark the grassy labyrinth pathways which allowed it to be mowed easily. And with a 23.5 inch width and everything level, this also ensured that the labyrinth was accessible and could accommodate wheel chairs.
Over the next few years, the team added more plants and landscaping. Ultimately the garden design was inspired more by what was donated than the original landscape design from the garden consultants. The gardeners proved adept at expanding the beds and the designs with whatever was offered, creating a lush space with seating areas and colourful beds. Each time a new project was identified there was always someone there to help the team out. Plants and shrubs came from the congregation and neighbours – including Tulips, Daylilies, Hostas, Peonies, Iris, Black-eyed Susans, Beebalm, ornamental grasses and many other flowers. Almost nothing was purchased except for soil and mulch when needed and rental fees for equipment from time to time.
(Colourful Bushes in Autumn, Photo Credits: St John the Baptist Anglican Church)
Some of the other projects for this space included: rose bush gardens and flower beds by the side of the creek; the installation of a number of memorial benches in memory of deceased loved ones, of which two are made of marble; a hedge of Annabelle Hydrangea that was donated and planted by the Girl Guides (who met regularly in the church hall and whose leader was one of the congregants) and the addition of electricity in the garden for those who wanted to use a microphone or play music. In addition to these projects, a second smaller labyrinth was added in a corner of the garden space – replacing some untamed raspberry bushes that were dug out using a back hoe. This labyrinth featured a classical Cretan shape with eight concentric rings defining seven pathways marked by pea gravel and stone.
The landscaped garden became an important greenspace for the local community: it is a quiet natural area for a walk, a relaxing space to hang out with friends and even a picturesque spot for wedding photography. The congregation enjoys outdoor worship services in the garden during the summer and has offered weekly meditation events throughout the years for the community. There is even a snowshoe path maintained by some outdoor enthusiasts throughout the winter.
The garden became an official member of the worldwide Quiet Garden Movement, the same year that the garden and labyrinth were dedicated in a special ceremony by the Bishop who blessed the space for the congregation and community. The Quiet Garden movement, which started in England, recognizes sacred spaces that “provide a space for prayer, stillness and spiritual reflection”. Those who become affiliated with the Quiet Garden Trust commit to “weaving the creative, caring and contemplative threads of the Christian Gospel into the fabric of everyday life”. The Trust’s mission is to encourage hospitality and prayer worldwide with these sacred spaces that are open to all faiths including non-believers. Each Quiet Garden around the world offers a place of retreat, a space to reflect and an opportunity for renewal for all who visit.
The two labyrinths of the St. John’s church are the main draw. Either people will hear about the space from friends or they learn about it through participating in one of the labyrinth programs. Over the nearly twenty years, there have been meditation & mindfulness events, on-site labyrinth facilitation training, and various special programming & workshops. The labyrinths have been used as tools to help in mental, spiritual and emotional healing for caregivers, dementia patients, hospice clients and those receiving grief support along with others. Even those running the events benefited from being outdoors in the garden regularly.
(Peaceful Morning Light in the Quiet Garden, Photo Credits: St John the Baptist Anglican Church)
The beautiful landscaped space where the labyrinths are situated, may be what draws people back again and again. The Quiet Garden is tucked away from the street, buffered by trees on all sides and provides a true retreat from the busy world. There is a feeling of leaving the hurried pace behind and slowing down when you enter the space. It offers a variety of garden seating spots where visitors can rest, relax and spend some time or they can choose one of two labyrinths to walk the sacred path. This is a true community asset that is endorsed by all: the congregants, the community, the Anglican Diocese along with the Village Association. Even the local day care and the public elementary school use the space for their children and students.
And while much of the space is landscaped, some of the beauty of it is derived from the natural setting, along with the stream going through the property. When the team had the opportunity to choose some new trees due to a City storm sewer project, they chose native trees to add to the stream banks and wooded areas including White Birch, Silver Maple, Shagbark Hickory, Serviceberry and Elderberry. They also included some trees such as Honey Locust and Swamp Oak that would do well in wet lowlands, as every spring the greenspace around the creek is flooded.
This natural greenspace has become quite a draw for local wildlife. The stream supports frogs, crayfish and dragonflies and many birds are attracted to the water and woods. The gardeners who are out regularly in the space have seen many birds including orioles, cardinals and small green herons along with some special sightings such as a barn owl that flew through having been flushed out by crows and even a bald eagle once. Another special sighting was a Hummingbird Moth found sipping nectar from the Beebalm. There is also a family of foxes, some resident deer and other wildlife supported with bathouses and a birdhouse.
(Hummingbird Moth spotted by Beebalm, Photo Credits: St John the Baptist Anglican Church)
LESSONS LEARNED/KEYS TO SUCCESS
Recognize the Difference between Installation and Maintenance.
It is so important to have a good team to help out when starting your project. Installing a new garden takes many hands and having a large group helps make the vision become a reality. It may be easier to find those willing to help with the initial effort – people can plan their schedule and offer help over a weekend or for a few weeks. Ongoing weekly maintenance, after the garden is in place, requires a different type of volunteer – those who have the time to show up weekly to weed and water as needed. Key volunteers should plan for recruiting these types of volunteers from the start, dividing the labour and setting a schedule that works for the full team. Also keep in mind that if the demographics of the congregation changes, the availability of dedicated volunteers may change also. Having a core team of volunteers made this project flourish.
Ad hoc can Work – if you are Flexible with the Plan.
Much of the Quiet Garden space slowly evolved over time – new greenspace was cleared as plants were donated each year. The three key volunteers took on only as much as they could and expanded strategically as interest in the space grew. Whenever they put out the word, donations of plants and other types of support flowed in. Specific needs, such as skilled labour for digging the trench or a donation of a free consult from a landscape company always seem to come when needed. Another time, a local high tech company organized a team volunteer day, where their employees came out to the garden for a day of free weeding, offering a much needed break for the busy team. Free local advice was what started the project in the first place. By allowing something magnificent to be expressed - it will have a momentum of its own. This type of sacrament to beauty lifts people’s spirits and offers a space for creativity, joy and hope. This project has shown how important it is to have access to spaces of inspiration and beauty that uplift and renew, not only for individuals but also for the community as a whole. The garden has become such an asset with strong community support behind it – thanks to the dedicated team that had the opportunity to see where the spark of synchronicities could take them.
(Relaxing Spot to Sit in Quiet Garden, Photo Credits: St John the Baptist Anglican Church)
There were many memorable moments for the team from the almost twenty years that the garden has been open. The Consecration of the Garden ceremony in 2002 with the Bishop was very special, with both the congregation and the community coming together to celebrate the new space. It included the dedication of the garden and the Bishop’s prayer blessing of the space along with a celebration that included a guitarist and a dance performance set to “The Lord of the Dance” and a community BBQ with over 100 in attendance. Two of the original garden team members have held family weddings in the garden – since the children & the parents were so intricately connected with the space – right from the installation of the labyrinths and through so many garden seasons as the children grew up.
One team member vividly remembers one quiet, serene winter’s scene in the garden – they were out for a walk and taking in the cold black and white landscape with the garden covered in snow and saw the striking black silhouette of a visitor in the garden sitting on the stone wall that bordered the labyrinth.
Here was someone who had stopped to take in the serenity and peacefulness of the church’s garden, even in the winter. When you start a project, you never know what in the end it will become and how it will shape other people’s lives. The project can end up having a life of its own and the impact goes way beyond the vision of the initial team and also beyond even their initial scope to touch people that the team may never even meet. That simple silhouette of someone visiting the garden in one of the colder months of the year, spoke volumes as to what the garden had become for so many people in the community of Richmond and beyond.
St. John the Baptist Anglican Church
67 Fowler Street