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A Heavenly Assumption

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.

A marble statue of St. Joseph and the Christ child invites contemplation, reflection, prayer.

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.”

From left to right, Mary’s Girls: Rita Pacheco, Isabel Melo, Alda Barron, Cynthia Rose.

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.

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