Across from St. Joseph’s Chapel on Millfield Street in Woods Hole, the Mary Garden sits on Eel Pond, with its view of the village laboratories on Water Street across the way with the sea beyond. Just entering through the wooden gate of this garden brings a serenity helpful for weathering the stress of the pandemic.
This revered space has been opened to the public in 1937, thanks to the generosity of Frances Crane Lillie. She donated the monies for both the garden and bell tower on church land bestowed by Joseph Story Fay in the 1880s. Ms. Lillie was a deeply religious person, yet she also was steeped in the world of science. Growing up with vast wealth, she married Frank R. Lillie, a respected zoologist with connections to The University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory. He ultimately became director and president of the MBL. Ms. Lillie found religions fascinating and embraced mystical Catholicism, which led her to dedicate this 189-by-25-foot parcel in honor of the Virgin Mary. Her Mary Garden was the first of its kind in America.
Ms. Lillie did extensive research into the religious symbolism of plants associated with Mary. Roses were important because one of the Virgin Mary’s titles bestowed by her devotees was Mystical Rose. In addition to those, dating from early 16th Century, upward of 500 flower names have honored The Virgin Mary. For example, Madonna lily, lady’s slipper, rosemary, and lady’s smock. Also, Virgin flower, which we know as periwinkle, Virgin’s bower we call clematis, and Our Lady’s glove is foxglove. Forget-me-nots were known as the eyes of Mary and impatiens were Mother’s love.
In 1932, preliminary work began on the “Garden of Our Lady” and continued for five years. Dorothea K. Harrison, a landscape architect from Boston who had ties to MBL, was asked to create the garden layout. With Elizabethan flower names depicting the beauty and attributes of Mary, she primarily selected flower colors of white and shades of blue that were associated with her. The garden’s central feature is a cross with a statue titled “The Virgin” centered in the middle. It was sculpted for Ms. Lillie out of concrete by artist Vinol M.S. Hannell. Manicured paths lead around to other garden facets. There is a small plot to the east of the cross that lists the plants according to their older religious names
Ms. Lillie envisioned the garden to incorporate two components: religion and science. For the former, the garden was steeped in Marian tradition. Also, the bell tower, which is constructed from West Falmouth pink granite, has an interior room that resembles a monastic cell with a bookcase, writing desk, and chair for creative contemplation. For the latter, Ms. Lillie determined that the two sonorous bells of the tower be dedicated to two famous scientific personae. A plaque affixed by the bell tower door acknowledges the larger bell is named for polymath Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics and the smaller one for Louis Pasteur, known as the father of bacteriology. Since their dedication, these bronze bells have chimed twice a day, every day.
For the statues and the fine artwork on the bell tower, she spared no expense, enlisting international artisans to complete the work she envisioned. In addition to “The Virgin” statue, a six-panel bronze piece titled “Scenes form the Life of St. Joseph,” created in 1930 by artist Alfoo Faggi, graces the bell tower entrance.
Bordering the plot on the Eel Pond side is a granite seawall and originally a boxwood hedge along Millfield Street, contributed by Wilfred E. Wheeler, the groundskeeper who had been a former Massachusetts commissioner of agriculture. Today, the hedge is yew, which replaced the boxwood after the Hurricane of 1938. A subsequent addition to the original footprint is an area on the west side of the bell tower known as the Joseph Garden that added more area for sitting and reflecting.
It took considerable work to create this beautiful space, so it is important to maintain it and make needed improvements. Luckily, through the decades people either in the church or nearby community have actively kept the garden blossoming and inviting to passersby. To maintain the grounds, Ms. Lillie set up a trust fund and for many years members of the Lille family continued to be caretakers.
Word soon traveled of this accomplishment. Enter John S. Stokes Jr. from Pennsylvania who took a deep interest in this original Mary Garden in the United States. So much so, that he went on to co-found Mary’s Gardens with Edward McTague. This organization promoted the creation of these stylized gardens in homes, parishes, and other places. Now, there are numerous such gardens throughout this country, Ireland, and Australia.
Still, over time the quality of the garden slipped. Due to the extensive damage caused by hurricanes and the subsequent hardship of the years during World War II, the original plantings, those honoring Mary, were supplanted by other species that were better adapted to the Cape soil. In 1982, in time for its 50-year celebration, a group of St. Joseph’s congregants planned a major restoration to honor Ms. Lillie’s original vision. Jane A. McLaughlin, the historian for St. Joseph’s, helped with the effort. She also wrote a detailed article about the garden “The Angelus Bell Tower and the Mary Garden in Woods Hole” for a 1992 issue of Spritsail, which is published by the Woods Hole Historical Collection.
Mr. Stokes communicated a great deal with Ms. McLaughlin regarding this restoration work so that the garden could reflect the original intentions. He was instrumental with replanting the garden, heeding the original design. He firmly suggested that the Mary Garden needs a nurturing landscapist.
Decades later in early 2020, the garden again started showing signs of fatigue and the bell tower had some serious structural problems. This time another landscape designer stepped through the gate into the garden. Cynthia Rose of Searose Designs is the project manager for this work. With 30-plus years in this field, she has won numerous awards, including one for her 2002 submission of a World Trade Center public garden memorial. As a horticulturist, landscape designer, and florist, she has a definite connection with “gardens of spirit.”
Ms. Rose grew fond of the Mary Garden. For several years on August 15, which is the Catholic Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Ms. Rose would visit and take note of the condition of the garden. She noticed that some things required attention, both in the gardens as well as the bell tower, which was leaking and had some windows broken.
Latest Restoration Work
Monsignor Stephen Avila, who in June 2019 assumed the pastorate of all three Falmouth parishes as well as the chapels of St. Thomas and St. Joseph in 2019. His responsibilities included care for the historic St. Joseph’s Bell Tower and Mary Garden.
“After assessing the properties under my direction,” he said, “I did note that the Mary Garden and the Bell Tower were in need of attention.” It was then that Ms. Rose “came forward and offered to lend a professional perspective on the garden.” They discussed what work was needed and the best way to get started. “We solicited a group of volunteers with “green thumbs” from the church collaborative and a great love for our Blessed Mother, as well as a professional carpenter and set out over this past summer to begin the restoration process.”
As caretaker of the Mary Garden at the bell tower at St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole, Ms. Rose, who is slim and energetic, credits her instincts when working on a project of this magnitude. She also cannot say enough about the many volunteers who stepped up to turn her ideas into a beautiful reality. She jokingly called the group “The Justice League” for their good natures and hardworking ethics.
“It started with some photos and letters of concern in March,” Ms. Rose said. “Then in August, friend and parishioner Rita Pacheco summoned forces at St Anthony’s.”
Work began on the first Saturday of August and went on every Saturday. Ms. Pacheco said she could tell how much the garden means to the community because visitors chat with her when she is there. “People tell me ‘that’s the spot where my husband proposed,’ or ‘that’s the place where we got married,’ ” she said.
“I cannot speak more fondly of the wonderful volunteers who have made this project a true mission,” Msgr. Avila said.” It would not have happened without their enthusiasm and commitment.”
Ms. Pacheco “summoned forces,” Ms. Rose said.
Those included Aptucxet Garden Club member Alda Barron, who has a talented green thumb and modestly said, “My title on this project is The Digger.” The other “Mary’s Girls,” as Ms. Rose coined them, are Ms. Barron’s sister Isabel Melo, and Patricia Keating, who was married in the Mary Garden. Danny Cunha is spearheading the fundraising efforts and Jane A. McLaughlin, who was a past historian of St. Joseph Church and wrote extensively on the garden and the 1982 restoration work. Cynthia Rose calls Ms. McLaughlin the project’s “mentor and steward.” She mentioned each worker is “very determined” to see the project done well. “Yes, the work is going on and we are planning to carry into the future.”
There were many fine days this fall, so volunteers were able to cull, weed, assess and plant. Extensive tree work also was done, as well as statues and benches straightened and 400 spring bulbs planted.
“Most of the plantings took place in the Meditation Garden.” Alda Barron said. They placed 10 different species of hosta from Mini-Lemon Zest to the Blue Mammoth Giant, and various types of daffodils and anemones. “By the statue of Mary, we started to restore the herbs with rosemary, mother of thyme, and lemon balm, many of the original plants are missing in this area,” Ms. Barron said. She added that much work was done dividing the variegated Liriopes and that the Joseph’s Garden required a lot of cleaning. “It sure is a job in progress,” she said.
Besides the many garden workers, Ms. Rose said local landscaper Grafton L. Briggs righted and cleaned the Mary statue and stonework. And she said Frank Almeida worked along with his son Nathan, putting in hundreds of hours. One day he spoke with her about replacing the older wooden gate and a few days later, she walked through his newly constructed gate. He also built a new view box, which is a small cabinet with double doors that open to reveal a grid of the garden layout and names of the plantings.
As for the bell tower, Ms. Rose said she is always amazed when the bells ring out because “the sensation travels up from your feet all through your body.”
“We further discovered that the beautiful bells cast specifically for the bell tower were not ringing at the right time,” Msgr. Avila said. He explained that they are off about seven minutes just after noon and 6 PM each day. After contacting a representative from the Verdin Bell Co, it was discovered that while the bells were in very good condition, the mechanism for ringing them had deteriorated to a point that it would need to be replaced.
Fortunately there are funds in reserve specifically for the bell tower.
“It is my hope that the Mary Garden, along with the ‘voice’ of the bell tower, will harken visitors to a place of solace and deep peace in the midst of the storms in their lives,” Msgr. Avila said.