Flowers tended by parishioners adorn Vancouver church each summer
After Mass one Sunday, Phyllis Nuebel exited Vancouver’s St. Joseph Church through a different door. Her route took her past a neglected rose garden, with a statue in serious need of cleaning.
“My gosh, those roses are in such bad shape,” Nuebel remembers thinking of the garden, dedicated to the unborn. “The statue of Mary and Jesus was just green.”
So she volunteered to clean the statue and coax the garden back to life. Nuebel knows a thing or two about roses — she grew them and took classes in rose care while living in Federal Way years ago.
“I think about how God puts things in your path,” said Nuebel, who moved to Vancouver in 2010. “When I saw the Marian rose garden, it was like a calling to me.”
She began babying the parish roses with fertilizer and water and pruned them at the proper time of year. Rose bushes that couldn’t be salvaged were replaced. Two years later, the flowers are flourishing.
Roses gathered from the garden are part of the homegrown beauty that adorns the church interior during the summer months, connecting parishioners with nature.
Churches are “created by man for the glory of God,” said parishioner Valerie Hepburn, volunteer team leader of the parish’s Art and Environment ministry. “We’re bringing in what God created and enhancing what man has built, for the glory of God.”
Using locally grown flowers during the summer allows the parish to stretch its budget for the months when it has to buy blossoms and uses the services of a floral designer.
Creating a bouquet to adorn the ambo is part of Valerie Hepburn’s work as volunteer team leader for the Art and Environment ministry at Vancouver’s St. Joseph Parish. The dahlias come from parishioner Dave Hertz’s garden.
Besides roses from the Marian garden, Hepburn cuts hydrangeas from the dozen or so shrubs on the expansive parish grounds, maintained with the help of a team of volunteers. Every Thursday or Friday, she visits the dahlia garden of parishioner Dave Hertz to collect dozens of blooms for the flower arrangements that will adorn the church that weekend.
“It always amazes me that God’s got these things on earth for us to enjoy,” said Hertz, who started growing dahlias about 15 years ago, around the time he became a St. Joe’s parishioner. Today, Hertz tends more than 100 plants that bloom from summer until the fall frost. He once did dahlia arrangements for the church and serves as Hepburn’s backup arranger when needed.
Hepburn’s main focus each week is creating a large arrangement for the ambo. “Our church seats maybe 700 to 800. It needs to be visible from the very back row,” she explained. Any extra flowers become smaller arrangements for statues in the church.
During the week, it’s not unusual for parishioners to drop off flowers from their gardens, so Hepburn makes vases and buckets of water available to keep the donations fresh until she can tuck them into an arrangement.
“Art and Environment is active 52 weekends a year, but we peak when we go into Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter,” Hepburn said. “I’ve got a group of probably 20 or 30 elves that come in and are very generous with their time,” she said. “I cannot stress enough how wonderful the volunteers are.”
For Hepburn and the St. Joseph gardeners, happiness comes from seeing something flourish through their efforts, and giving it back to God.
“It brings me joy to just work on the roses and keep them growing,” Neubel said.
For Hertz, donating his dahlias is a way to “give a little something back.” It’s rewarding to see the blossoms used in church, “because it is bringing beauty into God’s holy place, and there’s something to that,” Hertz said. “It’s a joy.”
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Symbols that Surround Us: Faithful Reflections by Johan Van Parys is available at the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Library Media Center.
Flowers should draw us into worship
The Catholic Church has a long history of bringing nature inside the worship space, according to Andrew Casad, director of the archdiocese’s Liturgy Office.
“Some of our very, very earliest churches, places like St. Peter’s and Sts. Cosmas and Damian, were built on top of the tombs of those particular saints,” Casad said. “It’s part of what we do … we place beautiful things on the graves of people.”
In the Christian tradition, there quickly grew to be an association between liturgical seasons and the local flowers coming into bloom at that time, he said. And there’s a classic tradition of the sexton, or sacristan, growing flowers to adorn the altar.
When adding flowers to the worship space, “noble simplicity” should be the aim, Casad said.
“We adorn the key parts of the church itself — near the altar, near the ambo, the paschal candle, the baptismal font — to bring attention to the things
that are already important,” he explained. “The
flower arrangements are meant to draw us into the worship itself.”
And the scent of flowers adds to the “multilayered, sensual, sacramental dimension of being Catholic,” Casad said. “My scientist wife would remind me that for most of us, most of our deepest memories are triggered by smell.”
Except for Lent, when the church says the worship space should be devoid of flowers, local custom guides the use of natural materials, Casad said. “There’s no rule: ‘Thou must not import African violets. Thou shalt use trilliums.’”
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 print edition of Northwest Catholic under the title "Homegrown beauty."