The project began with a question, How can two acres of land make visible and nurture relationships with God? The community of Christ Episcopal Church in St. Helens, Oregon, is making significant headway on their Blessing Woods Labyrinth and Nature Park. The idea to redevelop the church’s two-acre property into a space for neighbors and wildlife came from a longing to live into the Baptismal Covenant by restoring the land in a way that honors the Creator and heals the ecological damage from prior logging.
To address this longing, Christ Church developed a permaculture project and team, spearheaded by parishioner and consultant Nancy Tarnai and the vicar, the Rev. Jaime Sanders. Christ Church received a grant from the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon Foundation (EBOF) to hire Nancy part-time to serve as project manager, and to supply funds for outreach to the community.
The idea for the project began in 2019 and matured over the pandemic through conversations and idea-sharing with the congregation and community. “The congregation really wanted places for folks to sit, walk, and be with God,” said the Rev. Sanders. The group also shared the desire to do their part in combatting climate change and reducing the church’s carbon footprint by replacing the lawn, removing invasive plants, and introducing native plants. “We wanted to use this land for our ministry and mission,” said the Rev. Sanders.
The team and the steering committee partnered with Native Plantscapes Northwest and designer Catherine Tryzbinski to create a design for the property. In June, the plan was revealed to the congregation. It creates several zones, including a wetland area, shady forest, oak grove, garden beds for the altar guild, dedicated memorial space, nature play area with picnic areas, and at its center, a labyrinth. Throughout the nature park there will be interpretive and educational signs, places to sit and rest, and pathways for visitors to explore. Pollinator-supporting plants and native shrubs, trees, and groundcovers will help restore the land and support local wildlife, such as quail, deer, skunks, and other creatures.
“This is the most exciting thing we have ever done in the history of the church,” said Dr. Carol Craig, Senior Warden of Christ Church. “We are transforming the church.”
Christ Church is the first religious institution to partner with Native Plantscapes Northwest for a project such as this. “[Christ Church parishioners] are pioneers, and others will see what [they] are doing and come to realize they can do this too,” said Joni Shaffer-Elteto, co-owner of Native Plantscapes Northwest. For Joni and her husband and business partner, Endre, the work of reforestation is deeply spiritual. “This is where we both feel spiritually connected, in nature,” said Joni. “It is truly important to spend our time doing something that is important for the community and future generations, and addresses climate change and specimen extinction.”
At the center of the park is a labyrinth, a place for visitors to meander through a sacred practice of centering. For research, the team and steering committee visited the labyrinth at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Gresham. “We decided on a spiral labyrinth,” said the Rev. Sanders. “We wanted something to symbolize the [Columbia] River, and the spiral is like the eddy of the river.” Once built, Christ Church’s labyrinth will be the only one in Columbia County. She hopes the labyrinth will “be a place that welcomes people of all kinds of spirituality.”
In a presentation to the St. Helens’ Lion Club in April, the Rev. Sanders connected this vision to the historical churchyards of English churches that included places for meditative walking and shared space with the wildlife. “We want to offer a healing connection to nature,” she said. “We want to use our land in accord with our mission to help everyone connect with their Creator.” Christ Church intends to honor the Chinook Tribe, who originally inhabited the land.
The neighborhood surrounding Christ Church lacks a centralized park or gathering space for families to come and explore. The church also received a donation to build a children’s nature play area in the front of the property.
The church hopes the nature park becomes a day retreat center for faith communities in the diocese, nearby churches, and for those longing for a connection with the divine. “How could we turn the church inside out and create a sacred space outside for those who desire a relationship with God but do not want to come inside?” said the Rev. Sanders.
In addition to having a contract with Native Plantscapes Northwest, the congregation has stepped in to do the work of tending and preparing the land for the park. In October 2022, neighbors also helped the church level their old garden site to allow for mulching in hopes of creating rich soil for future plants. In January, their land was surveyed, and a crew from Ash Creek Forest Management, along with a few parishioners, began removing invasive plants such as ivy, blackberry bushes, and holly.
On Sunday, August 6, the church had an ecumenical blessing and dedication service. The group of 25 gathered on the land of the future park, singing How Great Thou Art and dedicating the land to fellow humans, creatures, and the unknown future ahead. “This is not a ground-breaking ceremony, but ground-healing,” said the Rev. Sanders. A bucket of woodchips was passed around, and individuals were invited to sprinkle some chips onto the ground that eventually will become the entrance to the park.
In the middle of the service, during the reading of Psalm 84, a group of 5 osprey circled above, calling out, then dispersed. “Well, I would say that was quite the blessing!” said Joni.
The team will begin the three-year project by excavating pathways, planting trees, and building berms on August 28.
If you are interested in following the project, you can do so on Christ Church’s website: https://christchurchsthelens.org/blessingwoods-nature-park. If you wish to make a donation towards the project, offer a legacy gift, or sponsor a bench, please contact the Rev. Jaime Sanders by email at email@example.com.