Gardens of Faith: Fruitful endeavors at three Anniston houses of worship
by Lisa Davis
Special to The Star
Apr 27, 2013 | 3014 views |  0 comments | 95 95 recommendations | email to a friend | print
First Christian Church of Anniston began a community prayer garden to mark the church’s 125th anniversary.
First Christian Church of Anniston began a community prayer garden to mark the church’s 125th anniversary.
Temple Beth-El

Alongside the busy traffic of Quintard Avenue sits a small oasis of a garden, a mass of colorful leaves and blooms against the backdrop of the shining white walls of Temple Beth-El.

“I do think this garden is a gift to Anniston, because it’s so public,” said Sherry Blanton, a member of the congregation who supervises the garden. Blanton is also a Calhoun County Master Gardener, but is quick to disclaim, “This is not my garden. It’s God’s garden.”

The historic synagogue dates from 1893; the gardens surrounding it date from 1999. The garden started out with just a few items, chosen with the help of local gardening guru Hayes Jackson, and has grown over the years. Blanton and her husband recently planted a bed of Coral Drift roses in memory of Fred Kemp, a longtime Anniston businessman who blew the shofar at the temple for more than 50 years. It is one of many memorial plantings.

The garden is guided by a respect for nature, and a desire to let plants grow in their natural state as much as possible. Crape myrtles, which have never been trimmed back, spread their silvery branches. The red leaves of Japanese maples flutter in the wind. A collection of palms grows alongside an Ichang lemon tree, which has matured to the point that it might put out fruit next year.

A 90-year-old magnolia tree towers over one corner of the garden, presenting a challenge to the gardener who must plant underneath it. Blanton has replanted two or three times trying to find the right plants to thrive in the tree’s shade. She thinks she may finally have hit upon it with a mix of Solomon’s Seal, cast-iron plant, Aztec grass, Nippon lilies and Lenten roses.

Elsewhere in the garden are azaleas, camellias, daffodils, daylilies and mahonia, as well as what Blanton described as “the biggest angel trumpet in town” — well over 6 feet tall when it blooms.

“This garden befits this beautiful building,” she said. “It’s a reflection of how we view our temple and our faith.”

First Christian Church of Anniston

Across the alleyway from the fellowship hall, First Christian Church of Anniston (Disciples of Christ) maintains a community prayer garden, a quiet pocket of greenery that is “open to people of all faiths (or none) as a place of meditation and prayer.”

It is a small oasis of lush greenery and peaceful birdsong. Evergreens — including a pair of towering Italian cypress trees at the entrance — grow in different shades of green. A shaded bank of ivy grows on one side of the garden, a row of camellias on the other. A line of Easter lilies waits to be planted.

Slideshow: Gardens of faith

The prayer garden was created in 2010 for the church’s 125th anniversary. It used to be a vacant lot, littered with trash. The garden was designed by congregation member Robert Soleman, and installed by volunteers from Disciples of Christ churches across the Southeast. More than 150 people descended on the church as part of a “Miracle Day” work day. Most worked on renovations to the church’s interior, but seven men from Huntsville cleared brush, laid brick, built benches and planted the garden in just one day.

The centerpiece of the garden is an altar adorned with a cross and candles carved from black walnut by Soleman, 83. He also paints and likes to fish, and takes side trips to collect driftwood which he assembles into sculptures.

“Creating something out of nothing is more fun than anything,” he said.

A “peace pole” in the garden was a gift in 2011 from departing pastor Rebecca Littlejohn. The prayer “May peace prevail on Earth” is displayed in English, Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew on the four sides of the pole. The church holds Easter sunrise services in the garden, and the church kids have picnics out there.

In honor of Earth Day, the church will hold services in the garden at 11 a.m. this Sunday. But the garden is not used primarily by church members, but by passersby. Soleman tells of seeing a woman with two small children stop in to rest and play. Homeless people often come and sit, he added. The garden is wheelchair-accessible.

“People in the neighborhood are very appreciative of what we’ve done,” Soleman said.

Grace Episcopal Church

There have been literally hundreds of prom photos taken in the expansive gardens that surround the pink sandstone walls of historic Grace Episcopal Church. Not to mention engagement photos. And senior portraits. Even Christmas card photos.

Sometimes people from nearby doctors’ offices will come by and sit a spell, said Connie Freeman, the unofficial chairperson of the church garden committee.

“I love that people come through and enjoy the gardens,” said Freeman.

On the east side of the church is the All Saints Garden, a memorial garden established in 1992 and dedicated to the late Mary Comer Hobbs, a beloved church member. Many of the plants in this garden were transplanted from Hobbs’ home. Underneath huge magnolia trees are tea olives, Lenten roses, cast-iron plants, oak leaf hydrangeas, rosemary, Siberian iris, ginger lilies, daylilies and roses. At the edge of a flagstone courtyard, plaques on a memorial wall list the names of those whose ashes are interred in the churchyard.

On the west side of the church is the Woodruff Memorial Garden, dedicated in 2004 to the memory of Harriet Bowen Woodruff, an avid gardener. A pair of decorative wrought-iron columns came from the Woodruff home. Underneath a canopy of cherry trees and dogwoods, paths wind among banks of azaleas, including a few native azaleas in pink and orange. There are cast-iron plants, Lenten roses, phlox, hydrangeas, mahonia, hostas, camellias and surprise lilies, which spring up seemingly overnight in the heat of summer. There are also a number of memorial trees planted on the church grounds.

Juliette Doster is a member of a local garden guild as well as Grace Church. She explained that when a member of the guild passes away, a tree is given in memory. Memorial trees have been planted at Grace, First Presbyterian Church of Anniston, Anniston First United Methodist and Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The gardens at Grace are adorned with a sprinkling of sparkly stepping stones that were decorated by past generations of Vacation Bible School students. The students also planted a small vegetable plot, which is now tended by the younger Sunday School classes. They’ve already got this season’s tomato plants in, and the beans are starting to sprout.
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