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“Nothing like it in the Tristate” St. Joseph Gardens in North Bend a landscape for prayer

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A marvel of engineering, the round labyrinth at St. Joseph Gardens has one path to the center and back, bordered in rock and decorative liriope grass. The paths themselves are laid out in limestone gravel. The central bench features a slab of Tennessee Crab Orchard stone (the same kind of stone used in the nearby Stations of the Cross prayer pathway that weighs more than 1,500 pounds.
A marvel of engineering, the round labyrinth at St. Joseph Gardens has one path to the center and back, bordered in rock and decorative liriope grass. The paths themselves are laid out in limestone gravel. The central bench features a slab of Tennessee Crab Orchard stone (the same kind of stone used in the nearby Stations of the Cross prayer pathway that weighs more than 1,500 pounds.
(Courtesy Photo)

By Gail Finke

St. Joseph parish in North Bend is famous for its view of the north bend of the Ohio River.

“That’s good if you enjoy the river view – not so good if you are also bound by a street and by homes on the other two sides,” said Bruce Tumlin, a member of the parish’s facilities committee. For years, the committee has been wrestling with lack of room for the church to expand. More than 175 years old, the parish is growing and has standing room only at holidays. Long ago, it outgrew its parking lot. On Sundays, many parishioners had to park across the street at the high school.

When the local school district built a new school and tore down the old one, the land across the street from the church became available and parishioners sprang into action, launching a capital campaign that exceeded all expectations, and a flood of volunteers whose work and independent fundraising added even more value to the improvements.

A new parking lot was just the beginning of a project now beginning its final phase. A capital campaign to raise money to buy the land generated far more, as parishioners embraced ideas for meditative, park-like grounds. Beginning In, 2015 St. Joseph began several phases of improvements, each paid for in full. Ground broke on May 21st for the last planned project, a permanent shelter in what is now called St. Joseph Gardens. The seven-acre site includes a large open field for events, a landscaped Stations of the Cross path set along a handicap-accessible walkway; 10 massive stone benches built by an Eagle Scout candidate and volunteers; and a 60-ft. labyrinth created by a second Eagle Scout candidate and a second crew of volunteers.

“We wanted to get as many people from the parish involved as possible,” Tumlin said. “When you invest your blood, sweat, and tears into a project, you’re really connected to it.”

Scout Josh Smith led the project to build the benches, while Scout Michael Burchert worked with a landscaper and a team of volunteers who spent more than 500 hours over a month to place more than 200 tons of material in the maze. A parish Garden Club maintains the plantings.

“We’re very proud that the parishioners supported it, and that we carried out initial goals set by the pastor and the committee,” Tumlin said. “It gives the church room to expand, whether that’s in 10 years, 20 years, 50 or 100 years. You can’t grow if you’ve run out of options.”

Mike Holscher of Holscher Hackman Garden Center in Dent laid out the first project, the Stations of the Cross path. “An anonymous parishioner donated the money for the Stations,” he said. “I don’t know who did the original drawing, but it was a flat field and they let me go in with a Bobcat and contour the land – I draw better with my Bobcat than I do on paper.”

Jonas Memorial Arts made and placed the massive Stations, sandblasted slabs of Tennessee Crab Orchard stone, each a different size and shape but all from the same Tennessee quarry. Owner Gerry Jonas, the only member of the contracting team who’s not a St. Joseph parishioner (he’s a member of St. John the Baptist in Harrison), said, “I’m really proud of it. The committee did a fantastic job, it’s unique in the tristate, there’s really nothing of that caliber around.

“Stone has been such a big part of the Church since the beginning,” he added. “It’s very symbolic of the faith –‘Upon this rock I will build My church.’ ”

It quickly became obvious that the stone benches originally planned for the site were “too wimpy,” Holscher said. “What we needed were ‘Fred Flintstone’ benches” to match the oversized look of the Stations. Eagle Scout candidate Josh Smith headed the effort to create benches from matching stone from the Tennessee quarry. Each slab weighs between 300 and 500 pounds.

Parishioners themselves finished the landscaping. For the dedication, Holscher arranged wheelbarrows full of small stones in the new parking lot. Father Michael Savino, then the pastor, blessed the stones, and then each parishioner present chose one to represent a prayer intention and took it to one of the benches to add to the decorative stone settings.

“It was a way to get the parish involved,” Holscher said. “People were very particular about which stones they chose and where they put them, so they could go back and sit and pray for their intention. But each bench has many people’s stones, so when they come sit on ‘their’ bench, they can pray for each other too.”

While the first phase of the gardens was carefully planned, the second phase, a round labyrinth 60 ft. in diameter, found the parish. An Eagle Scout candidate from Our Lady of the Visitation parish was interested in building one, H said, and Knights of Columbus members from St. Joseph knew just where there was land to spare.

“It’s a very ambitious project for an Eagle Scout,” said Holscher, who helped the young man plan and execute the project, “but he did all the work. I walked him through it but he got the donations, the materials, and the volunteers.” Five weekends of laborproduced a geometric pattern laid out in gravel edged with river rock and lines of liriope, a perennial border grass.

This year a third Eagle Scout candidate, Jesse Dunaway, created two-sided wooden panels etched with Scripture quotes and prayers that will hang from the rafters of the open shelter that will be erected this spring. Although it’s the last planned project, Holscher said he’d like to see a nature trail around the property and a path connecting the Stations and the labyrinth. “And who knows what Eagle Scout projects are out there?” he mused. “Maybe a grotto, who knows?”

The parish uses the open space for small events, such as an Easter Egg Hunt and summer activities, and held their first Oktoberfest in the field last fall. Tumlin said it’s become a year-round asset to the entire community.

“Everyone loves it,” he said. “It’s like a park for neighbors. We’ve had nothing but positive support.”

Parish Business Manager Karen Thorpe said the gardens are never empty. “Someone is out there every day,” she said. “Even in winter, there will be someone sitting in a car looking at the Stations, even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s a very prayerful place.”

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