A SENSE OF SPACE
Every garden story is about transformation: from barren ground to oasis, from one type of garden to another.
But the story of the gardens around St. Patrick’s Church, at King Street East and Victoria Avenue South, just east of downtown Hamilton, is one of a much greater transformation.
It’s the story of a church becoming a keystone, a linchpin, of the community around it.
King and Victoria is one of the busiest intersections in the city: 18wheelers, commuters, cyclists and pedestrians fight for space as Victoria carries Mountain traffic to the North End and King narrows for its passage through the core.
It’s not an area that gentrification has come to. Many of the area’s residents are living in poverty, with addictions and/or mental health issues.
There is more to this story: up to 350 people come to St. Patrick’s for a hot breakfast and lunch every day of the year.
A free barbecue is held every Friday, for which neighbours patiently (for the most part) line up.
But this is a story about its gardens. The sad part is that most Hamiltonians will only glimpse the gardens from their cars, travelling at 50 kilometres an hour or impatiently waiting for a light to turn.
This summer, though, it’s hard to miss. From Victoria, the bright pink of dozens of well-tended hydrangeas, accompanied by purple-flowering hostas, is a beacon in a grey area. A fabulous pergola — constructed by a parishioner in memory of his father — stretches from the sidewalk to the church’s (accessible) side entrance.
It’s only when you get closer that you see the fish carved at each corner and the cross at each end.
From King, two great wide flower beds bracket the entrance path, curving like embracing arms.
The “head gardener” here is Andrea Fackelmann, parishioner and leader of a tiny band of fellow volunteers who have transformed the property. They are inspired and guided and encouraged by Father Tony O’Dell, pastor at St. Patrick’s for the past five years.
Father Tony talks with deep compassion for the church’s neighbours who live in desperate circumstances, some in “six by eight rooms — they have no space at all.”
The church space, inside and outside, is for them, he says. This was a violent neighbourhood, he says, with a lot of aggressive panhandling and gang activity. He and the pastoral team set out to build a different relationship, to make friends with the neighbours who live in rooms above the stores and bars across the street. Now, he says, the guys sitting on the stoop across the street watch out for the church, and for him as he walks around the area.
Father Tony encourages the flock to live the gospel, to take their faith out from Sunday masses to the world around them the other 6½ days of the week. He talks of the “church outside” and of two great signifiers of that; the first was ripping down the fences that used to surround the property.
The other sign of change at St. Patrick’s was the installation of a bronze sculpture, “Homeless Jesus,” by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, that depicts Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench. It’s not the centrepiece of the gardens but, situated on the street corner, it’s the anchor.
Meanwhile, Andrea and her team — “Luigi and Karen and Annamarie” — started replanting hydrangeas on the Victoria Avenue side of the church and cleaning up a small corner bed by the car park.
“Three years ago it was a mud hole,” says Andrea.
Now it overflows with healthy bushes and ornamental trees.
Last year and this year, borders alongside the church and flanking the two-month-old pergola were laboriously dug over (it’s clay here) and old roots were removed so they could be replanted.
The new borders out front are planted with shrubs and small trees and grasses, more hydrangeas, hostas, annuals and, appropriately, cardinal flower. Two wonderful containers overflowing with plants stand between the borders and the church’s main entrance. It’s done in peaceful soft greens and yellows with small splashes of red. It all says “welcome.”
“People trying to recover from alcohol or drugs — they’ve told me they like to come here. It has peace and calm,” says Father Tony. “We want to create a place for (our neighbours), a space for them.”
“A welcoming space,” adds Andrea.
Rob Howard lives and gardens in Hamilton. Find him on Facebook at Rob Howard: Garden writer or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
A dedicated group of volunteers has transformed the gardens at St. Patrick’s into a showpiece in the core.
Father Jay Pachocki in front of the church.
A new garden trellis covers the Victoria Street side entrance, where people using walkers and wheelchairs can safely enter the main sanctuary of the church.
“People trying to recover from alcohol or drugs — they’ve told me they like to come here. It has peace and calm,” says Father Tony O’Dell.
The church gardens are a public space enjoyed by everyone in the area, not just parishioners.
Head volunteer Andrea Fackelmann can’t believe how lush the hydrangeas look in the garden.
Tiger lilies, cone flowers, hydrangeas and hostas add colour to the gardens around St. Patrick’s Church.
This is the story of a church becoming a keystone, a linchpin, of the community around it.