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 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.
The garden, purportedly the first public Mary’s Garden in the country, became a prototype for other Mary’s Gardens that started to take root around the United States. A nonprofit Mary’s Garden organization formed in 1951 in order to offer free information and even seeds to encourage the cultivation of similar horticultural spots of devotion to Jesus’s mother. There was also a Mary’s Garden exhibit in the Philadelphia Flower Show of 1968 that stemmed from the blueprint first created for the Eel Pond spot. Furthermore, the original Mary’s Garden served as inspiration for the creation of similar gardens in Ireland, Australia, and other locales globally. Visitors from six continents have visited Cape Cod’s horticultural homage to the woman known to many the world over as Madonna.
In later years, a Joseph garden was added on the other side of the Bell Tower, containing a stunning marble sculpture of St. Joseph and the Christ child, and land in back of the sculpture of Mary was cultivated to create yet another tranquil alcove. Benches here and there allow visitors to sit as they think, enjoy the beauty of the spot, and perhaps pray.
By 2017, the garden had gone through another of its significant declines. That bothered Cynthia Rose, a landscape designer who is principal of Falmouth’s Sea Rose Design.
Explains Rita Pacheco, also of Falmouth, “I met Cynthia at a library event in 2017, on December 8th–the feast day for the conception of the Blessed Mother, and she immediately started talking to me about this garden. It was December–no one was talking about gardens.” The next year the two met again, and the subject of Mary and the garden came up a second time. Aptucxet Garden Club of Bourne members Isabel Melo, and her sister, Alda Barron, were also in attendance.
“I had worked in this garden as care tender,” Rose says, but after her tenure there, it fell into disrepair. By that point, however, even though she was not raised Catholic, she had already “kind of fell in love with Mary, the doors to the tower, the bells,” she explains. “And the garden resonated, even filled with weeds, as a garden of merit.” But a plan to revive the space remained just talk.
Fast forward a couple of years later to the COVID pandemic. “Everyone was home and this was outdoors, and it seemed like the right time,” Pacheco says. “We needed to do something fulfilling.”
Adds Rose, “We were in lockdown and needing places [outdoors] that people could come to and gather and pray and celebrate and cry and meditate.” She felt that what she calls “Mary’s energy” would spill over into their efforts.
With the blessing and permission of Father Steve, they got going in 2020 on August 15th, the Catholic feast day for the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. “We needed to start on the 15th, not the 14th, not the 16th,” Pacheco says.
“The general feeling when we began,” Rose says, “was that the garden was being used for people to bring in their bicycles and kind of crash after a ride. It wasn’t being used as a garden that is in itself a destination.”
With elbow grease, horticultural knowledge, and devotional urgency, Mary’s Girls–Rose, Pacheco, Melo, and Barron–worked to change that. “Truckloads of poison ivy and brambles came out,” says Melo, along with other invasive plants. The linden tree was pruned and made beautiful once again against the backdrop of the pond. The sculpture of Mary was righted. In the fall of last year, the women planted 1,000 bulbs–daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, anemones, crocuses, and others, all of which have associations with Mary. For instance, anemones are often depicted in images of the Virgin as she mourns the death of Christ. Even a certain Hosta, new varieties of which were planted, is sometimes called the “Assumption Lily”.
The women also scrubbed the downstairs room of the Bell Tower, which had not been opened to the public in 13 years. Today, the lovely space, easy on the eye, is accessible to visitors during the summer season.
Mary’s Girls called in fellow churchgoer Frank Almeida to build a beautiful new gate and make other improvements. “For years, Frank, a director at NOAA’s Marine Fisheries came here to have his lunch from his office across the pond,” Pacheco says. He was happy to help, just as he was happy to bring religious books to the tower for people to peruse and always willing to assist with other tasks. “If we are the edges of the table,” says Melo of the four Mary’s Girls, “Frank is the pedestal.”
People come in and out to wander the garden paths and check out the tower as the women speak. The visitors admire what they see; they think, reflect. Mary’s Girls are pleased with the reception their labors have brought. “Looking at the garden today, you wouldn’t know how far we had to dig out,” Rose says. Still, they see the endeavor as a work in progress.
“Things are stabilized,” Pacheco says, but not exactly back to the way the garden looked when it was first opened to the public, in 1937. Adds Melo, “while much has been tamed, there’s a lot more to go.”
“We would like very much for it to be as true as possible to the designer’s original intent,” Rose notes, “but we’re mellow about restoration to the 1937 look because there’s a reality to it.” For instance, because some plants took over and smothered others, things would have to be pulled out at the roots in certain spots–literally excavated–and there would be a need to start from scratch to hew to the original. “Not this week,” Rose says with a grin.
In addition, some plants are not as easy to procure as they were almost a century ago, especially with the pandemic having gotten in the way. To keep the garden looking appealing, some compromises had to be made even as new plants named for Mary have been brought in.
Nonagenarian McLaughlin, born before the garden and one of the volunteers who tended it 50-plus years ago after the hurricane, is okay with that. “They’ve been doing a beautiful job of it,” she says. “The bulbs they planted last fall came into bloom this spring, and the place was glorious. You just can’t imagine.”
It’s true; you can’t. Which is why, after looking at the photos here, it’s worth going to see for your self. If you show up on a Wednesday around 4 pm, you’ll also be able to have a look inside the beautiful little antique chapel across the street.
Larry Lindner is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.
Mary’s Garden is located directly opposite St. Joseph’s Chapel, 33 Millfield Street, Woods Hole.