Members of religious orders have always had a need to garden, inspired no doubt by one of the Christian faith’s noted cultivators, Saint Fiacre, a green-fingered holy man who became the patron saint of gardeners.
When monks, friars and nuns established their enclaves, they turned to gardens of herbs, wildflowers and vegetables to feed and heal themselves. Other essential elements: a dairy and a fruit orchard. Apiaries also played a key role, providing honey, mead and beeswax for candles.
The garden, as Westerners know it, survived the Dark Ages because of monasteries. Given these traditions, it was natural for the founders of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America to count on a small farm when in 1897 they purchased 100 acres of open land in Northeast Washington.
Its visitors and pilgrims would have been more familiar with its attractive Byzantine-style church and surrounding arcade, or the reproductions of shrines from the Holy Land, but the farm in the city became a vital, if largely hidden, element of the institution. In their brown robes and open-toed sandals, the brothers were into urban agriculture a century before it became trendy.
By 1915, the heart of the garden was a smart new greenhouse, a coal-fired machine for growing plants, framed in steel and wrought iron, covering 3,600 square feet and attached to a two-story stuccoed lodge known as the woodhouse.
But by 1980, when Brother David Wathen arrived at the monastery not long out of the Navy, he remembers the greenhouse as a structure that was unloved and unused. “The heat had been turned off in the 1970s because of the high cost of fuel, so it was abandoned,” he said. “There were many glass panels that were broken. Just stuff stored there.”
By then, the nearby dairy barn was gone and a large underground vault used as a root cellar (big enough to park horse-drawn carriages) was so buried by accumulated soil that no one knew it was there.
In the late 1990s, the friars — by then aging and/or absorbed by their ministries — realized that if the monastery were to cling to its agrarian roots, it would need help. They established a group of volunteers named the Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild. This proved providential.
Today, an extensive vegetable garden on the sunny hillside below the greenhouse is lush as summer heat sets in after the rain. Tall sunflowers screen terraces of tomato, eggplant, peppers, squash and other warm-season edibles. Last year, the garden yielded 8,600 pounds of produce, which was disbursed to more than 20 food banks feeding thousands of people in need.
The production is not down to the volunteer gardeners alone. Pollinating honeybees occupy 28 beehives maintained by the DC Beekeepers Alliance and the Bee CARE Institute. In years when there are fewer hives, vegetable production drops, said Lou Maroulis, the guild’s volunteer chief executive.
With an understandable pride, he took me into the woodhouse to show an array of 27 ribbons picked up last year from state and county fairs. “We received grand champion for preserves at the Montgomery County Fair,” he said.
The orchard is back, with 60 young apple, pear, peach, cherry and plum trees donated by the nonprofit Casey Trees and planted in the vicinity of the original fruit garden.
And what of the greenhouse? When I was last there three years ago, it was limping along in its worn and dusty state, electric heaters disconnected. The guild was using part of it for four months of the year, to raise transplants for the garden and to sell at the guild’s major annual fundraiser, the April plant sale. But at more than 100 years old and in need of a major refitting, the greenhouse seemed doomed. One option seriously considered was to demolish the greenhouse, but a factor worked in its favor: Its removal would have required the construction of a $50,000 retaining wall.
The monastery’s superior, or guardian, Father Larry Dunham, announced last year that the greenhouse would be part of a capital improvement campaign, and in February, with the funds raised, gave the green light for the renovation. In May, contractor crews arrived to remove the old glass and heating pipes and proceeded to strip, clean and repaint the house’s superstructure, which proved remarkably intact and uncorroded, for the most part. Seven of the eight hand-wheels used to open and close vents still operated. The old cypress framework that held the glass panes was replaced with cedar millwork.
When I stopped by last week, much of the fresh glazing was in place, and Maroulis showed me the newly constructed masonry wall bisecting the glasshouse. This will allow the half closer to the woodhouse to be kept at 60 degrees in the winter, the other half at 50 degrees. In addition to storing the monastery’s extensive collection of tropical plants, the greenhouse’s conditions will be ideal for growing cool-season vegetables through the winter.
The cost so far, $224,000, doesn’t include the (partially raised) funds needed for commercial greenhouse heaters, plumbing and growing tables. Gardeners plan to use the structure this fall, even if they have to use plastic tables, space heaters and fans, Maroulis said.
This is neither a pure historical restoration nor the creation of a modern high-tech greenhouse. But it will do the job while retaining the soul of the place.
“I’m thrilled they’re doing this,” said Wathen, who is also a priest and director of the monastery’s pilgrimage office. He was sitting in the welcome shade of an old pear tree next to the woodhouse. “It’s a way for us to project our image to the local community and let them know we are here.”
To which Maroulis added: “We are here in the spirit of Saint Francis, to be with nature and to help others in need. It doesn’t make sense necessarily to have a state-of-the-art greenhouse but instead to celebrate this structure as it currently stands and to bring it back.”