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A Heavenly Assumption

Local green thumbs join forces to restore a devotional garden.

In a long, narrow garden perched alongside Eel Pond in Woods Hole, a gentle breeze tickles some carefully tended Hosta plants and blooming lady slippers. It is hard to imagine that only a year ago this idyllic, contemplative spot was home to overgrown tangles of bramble, other invasive plants, and untended hedges. The garden’s fencing was down, the sculpture of the Virgin Mary was listing to the right, and kids had hung a rope from an unruly linden tree to swing over the water before making raucous splashdowns. It took the hard work and devotion of a core group of women who call themselves “Mary’s Girls” to make the garden once again a tranquil oasis for meditation and prayer as well as nurturing an appreciation of nature for all who walk through the unlocked gate.

This is not the first time the garden has undergone a resurrection of sorts. Ninety-year-old Jane McLaughlin remembers enjoying the pastoral setting when she first came to live in Wood’s Hole in 1952 at the age of 21; she had accepted a fellowship at the Marine Biological Laboratory, visible directly across the pond. But in 1954, Hurricane Carol buried the verdant spot under seven feet of water. “That did a little bit of damage to the plants,” she says drolly. At the time she lived only two houses up from the garden, in a first-floor apartment. “I could see cars bobbing in the water,” she recounts.

The garden also underwent changes at other times. During World War II, when it was not possible to replenish it with flowers that came from Europe, blossoms were kept simply to blue and white–the colors typically associated with the Virgin Mary. Later on, in the 2000s, the plantings went through a period of neglect, and the place fell into significant disrepair.

The Origins of “Mary’s Garden”

Sitting on Millfield Street opposite St. Joseph’s Chapel, one of the oldest Catholic churches on Cape Cod, the garden was gifted by Frances Crane Lillie, a convert to Catholicism and the wife of Marine Biological Laboratory board of trustees president, Frank Lillie. “Her purpose,” says the church’s current pastor, Reverend Monsignor Stephen Avila, was “to remind this very science-oriented community that there’s more than science,” as a way to interpret the mysteries of life. She wanted to “bring a sense of the sacred in the secular surroundings that were here,” he comments. 

It was quite an undertaking. “The land for the garden originally sloped all the way from the church down to the water,” explains the monsignor, known warmly by his parishioners as Father Steve. It had to be leveled to create the garden and a seawall built so the plantings didn’t just drop into the pond.       

Before the garden was created a bell tower fashioned from rough-cut pink granite was built. It contained two bells, one named for Gregor Mendel and the other for Louis Pasteur–both men of science and both devout Roman Catholics–to make the point that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Today the bell tower is called the Angelus Tower. “Angelus” is Latin for Angel, Father Steve explains, and refers specifically to the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement of the coming of the Christ child in the Gospel of St. Luke. 

The two bells in the tower are named for Gregor Mendel and Louis Pasteur—both men of science and both devout Roman Catholics.

The ringing of the bells serves as a reminder of that announcement and, in that vein, as a call to prayer. The world over, the priest says, the bells are supposed to ring at noon and at 6 pm, and in some places, at 6 am. (To this day the bells in the Woods Hole Angelus Tower remain in excellent condition, although the mechanism is antiquated, causing them to ring “at odd times,” as Father Steve puts it; the mechanism is in the process of being replaced.)

The door to the tower is the bronze creation of Italian-born artist Alfeo Faggi, whose works grace the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York as well as other well regarded public art venues. Faggi adorned the door with six bas relief panels depicting the life of Saint Joseph, including “The Flight Into Egypt” and “Finding of Jesus in the Temple.” Inside the door, next to the ladder that ascends to the bells, is a small room, or oratory, with a simple writing desk and chair that lends the space the beauty and spare elegance of a monk’s cell. 

In 1929, once the tower was constructed, Mrs. Lillie hired a landscape architect to design the garden, which she wanted to be a paean to Mary, the mother of Christ, whom she called “Our Lady.” Mrs. Lillie also commissioned a sculpture, titled “The Virgin,” by artist Vinol Hannell, whose works were exhibited at the time at the Art Institute of Chicago. A Modernist take on the Biblical icon, Hannell’s sculpture sits in a cross-shaped patch delineated by pavers made of the same pink granite as the bell tower.  

The garden itself, which has come to be known as Mary’s Garden, contained mostly flowers that had names associated with Christ’s mother: “Madonna Lilies”, “The Virgin’s Tears” (Virginia spiderwort), “Our Lady’s Mantle” (morning glory), and “Mary’s Gold” (marigold).

The tranquil result gave visitors comfort no matter what their religion. In the years following World War II, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany could see the garden from the windows of his workspace across the pond at the Marine Biological Laboratory and would come to sit there for a while in the evenings for solace. 

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