By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – There are many reasons to go to church. And Immaculate Conception Parish on Grove Street has given people another one.
The draw is Our Lady’s Garden, where pastor and parishioners blessed stones honoring the deceased Sunday.
Getting to that point involved an alternative school, 800 pounds of topsoil and a BYOB day.
“It came out of a parish council meeting,” when parishioner Stephen Sycks raised the idea of a memorial garden, said the pastor, Father Walter J. Riley. “I kind of handed it on to Michelle Deignan. … She was more than happy to do it.”
Mrs. Deignan, who joined this parish after her husband, Deacon Kevin Deignan was assigned here, said there was a garden with perennials that hadn’t been touched in years.
Last August, she and a few other parishioners began changing that. They brought topsoil, and plants from their own gardens. Parishioners were invited to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bulb), and more than 100 bulbs were planted.
Parishioner Rita Stukowski, who teaches at the Worcester Alternative School, said she solicited help there. She said James Graham, who teaches industrial arts at the school and goes to St. Columba Parish in Paxton, worked with students to make three trellises and two benches for the garden.
Kathryn O’Neil, another teacher, carved flowers on the benches, which are dedicated to two former pastors of Immaculate Conception: Msgr. Thomas Needham and Father Edward T. Connors.
Parishioner Kathy Freeman took orders for stones for the garden, Father Riley said. People paid $45 (now $55) to cover the cost of each stone, which they could have engraved.
“Most people can afford that,” Father Riley said. “And if I find out anyone can’t, the parish will take care of that.” There are more than 100 stones to date, and orders are still being taken.
Partially circling a long-present statue of the Blessed Mother are stones naming priests: “Msgr. Thomas J. Needham, Good and Faithful Servant,” “Father Edward T. Connors, Our Beloved Pastor,” “Msgr. Edmond T. Tinsley, with Thanksgiving,” “Father Peter J. Scanlon, Chaplain of WFD – WPI – Newman,” “Rev. Richard T. Carey, pastor – friend.” (Parishioners could honor favorite priests, including those who didn’t serve there.)
A stone in front of pink roses says, “Every Life is Precious: In Memory of Aborted Babies.” Mrs. Freeman said another stone came in this week seeking prayers for the souls in purgatory. There’s also a stone expressing gratitude to St. Michael the Archangel. But most stones bear the names of deceased loved ones.
Sunday after Mass parishioners gathered outside by the garden. The pastor offered words of gratitude, blessing prayers and a Gospel reading about Jesus raising a dead man. Then he invited those present to sprinkle with holy water the stones they had ordered.
“I think it’s just wonderful what they have done,” said Pauline C. Flynn, who has a stone for her parents, Robert and Pauline Cummings. “Every morning I say ‘hello’ to my folks when I come to church.”
“A lot of old people can’t get to the cemetery,” said Marie Dowd, who blessed the stone for her parents, James and Marie Dunn.
“They’re going to be here anyway,” her husband, Phil Dowd, said of people coming to church. “They can stop and say a prayer.”
Mrs. Deignan said it would be difficult for a woman in her 90s to get to her husband’s grave on the Cape.
“She has a stone for him here, and now she feels close to him,” Mrs. Deignan said. She said some stones were placed where they are accessible to people with handicaps.
“People walk there during the day, even non-parishioners,” she said. “The garden is the best way you can be next to God.”
Father Riley said people come say a prayer and spend some time.
“It’s a good thing to see,” he said. “It brings some comfort and a little bit of peace to people in the parish.… We’re very blessed … to be able to do this, with the piece of property we have, and putting it to good use.”
Father Riley said he thought it would catch on and that any parish that tries this would find the same thing: people want to remember their loved ones. He said he hopes some copy the idea and that they’ll need “holy women” like those here who dug up part of the lawn and made it happen.