Garden of Seedin': South Lyon parish's beautification project gives God the glory

Fr. Stan Tokarski and his dog, Grace, show off his vegetable garden at St. Joseph Parish in South Lyon. Fr. Tokarski enjoys growing tomatoes, eggplant and other vegetables, a complement to the parish's parishioner-led gardening ministry. (Photos by Karla Dorweiler | Special to Detroit Catholic)

From the 10 Commandments to a Marian grotto and St. Michael the Archangel prayer garden, St. Joseph emphasizes outdoor prayer space

SOUTH LYON — The gardens at St. Joseph Parish in South Lyon are more than just something pretty to look at on the way into Mass. They’re a destination for prayer and reflection.

Every plant, every garden ornament, every bench has been thoughtfully and prayerfully placed by a team of 12-18 dedicated volunteer parishioners who make up the parish’s Garden Ministry. Each is responsible for his or her own area of the grounds or task, and all are led by Maggie Kurtzweil, a master gardener, attorney, city council member and pro-life advocate.

In spring, the islands in the parking lot burst forth with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. The new 10 Commandments Garden greets visitors with a statue of Moses and a unique tree, the Red Obelisk European Beech. Outside the Eucharistic adoration chapel, the Blessed Virgin Mary Grotto invites people to sit and pray in front of a statue of Mary, or even eat their lunch — the benches convert into a table with one simple motion.

Glorifying God’s creation

The St. Joseph Garden Ministry chose St. Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who cherished animals and nature, as their patron saint. One of his quotes fits the group to a tee: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

The gardens began taking shape seven years ago, when Kurtzweil noticed some of the flower beds at the parish needed attention. She asked permission of pastor Fr. Stan Tokarski and promised she would not need any money from the parish budget.

Members of the St. Joseph Garden Ministry, pastor and staff pose in front of the Rosary Garden installed this summer. Front row, left to right: Maggie Kurtzweil and Kit Martin. Second row, left to right: Jim Till, Jane Till, Anne Faucher, Elaine Johnson, Dan Martin, Linda Williams (parish manager) and Estelle Zelasko. Fr. Stan Tokarski is pictured in back.

“I had the idea to improve the physical contents of the property. It had a church on it, but to a gardener, it lacked other things that could enhance spiritual development in your life,” Kurtzweil said. Why not create gardens at St. Joseph that would provide additional venues for prayer and spiritual development, particularly on evenings when the church is closed?”

Soon parishioners, particularly those with an interest in gardening, asked Kurtzweil how they could help. Armed with their own gardening tools, the Garden Ministry took shape.

Talking to the team of gardeners inevitably turns into a round robin of praise. Kurtzweil credits the gardens’ beauty to the individual members of the group. The gardeners laud Kurtzweil, who in turn praises pastor Fr. Tokarski and parish manager Linda Williams.

“When I came here a few years ago, Maggie would just show up and work by herself tirelessly,” Williams said. “Pretty soon more people joined her. It was almost biblical, the way they came one by one. They’re a dedicated bunch. They’ll be out on a 90-degree day working, and they just love it.”

The goal of the Garden Ministry is to glorify God through the beauty of His creation. As stated on the ministry’s page on the parish website, “St. Francis reminds us that God’s mandate to respect life does not just extend to human life, but extends to all of God’s creations, including animals and plant life.”

The Birdbath Garden at St. Joseph in South Lyon features tall grasses where ducks nest in the spring. Plants and flowers in the gardens at the parish are curated to allow “nature to flourish, just like St. Francis spoke about,” says Maggie Kurtzweil, who leads the Garden Ministry team.

A large collection of milkweed on the property attracts monarch butterflies while sunflowers attract birds. Ducks nest in the tall grasses in the Bird Bath Garden each spring.

“Part of this ministry is to sustain fragile life. We provide opportunities for nature to flourish, just like St. Francis spoke about,” Kurtzweil said. “We have a jury system for introducing new plants into the garden. We ask, ‘How does it contribute to sustaining bees or butterflies, or attract a yellow finch?’ Or, ‘Does this grass encourage nesting here in the spring?’”

Blessed by time, talent and treasure

The work of the Garden Ministry couldn’t be done without the overwhelming support of the parish. The Knights of Columbus have helped the ministry since it began. Private donations provide for 100% of the cost to plant and maintain the gardens. For larger projects, as many as 40 parishioners volunteer to help, while parish families and local businesses donate materials such as mulch and live Christmas trees for the outdoor Nativity.

Elaine Johnson has been a member of St. Joseph her whole life and joined the Garden Ministry last year. She helped with funeral luncheons at the parish for years, but when COVID-19 put a pause on funerals, she looked for another way to be involved. Even though funeral lunches have resumed, Johnson continues to help outdoors.

St. Michael Garden, featuring a statue of St. Michael the Archangel, chairs for prayer and reflection, a stone inscribed with the St. Michael prayer, and stonework in the shape of a cross.

“I enjoy being outside, and I find it very peaceful when I come,” said Johnson, who often prays a rosary while she works in the Blessed Virgin Mary garden.

The Garden Ministry brings a range of talent and backgrounds among its members. As the planted areas grew around the property, the ministry needed a more efficient way to water. Volunteer Jim Till was up to the task. As a former tool and die maker, he designed a watering system on a trailer with a 300-gallon tank and a 12-volt battery. During the summer, Till can be seen driving through the parking lot flower beds with water.

Fr. Tokarski doesn’t help with the flowers; he grows vegetables outside the rectory. Members of the group jokingly call him “Director of Vegetable Gardening.” He propagates his own tomatoes and shares plants with parishioners in the spring.

A place to pray the rosary

This year, the Garden Ministry tackled a number of large projects, including the completion of an extensive rosary garden dedicated to the Glorious Mysteries. Kurtzweil had the idea four years ago when she started to notice people praying the rosary on a bench outside. She wondered what the team could do to help facilitate that prayer and offer a more pleasing and meditative environment.

Each mystery features a custom, one-of-a-kind garden trellis designed by metal artist Jeff Badarak of JJB Metal Art. Badarak, a former parishioner who now resides in Florida, was commissioned for the pieces, which were funded by individual donors. Each trellis depicts one of the five Glorious Mysteries. While the trellises were being made and money was being raised, the Garden Ministry prepared the gardens and planned the design for the gardens around them.

The Resurrection is depicted in one of the trellises at St. Joseph Parish in South Lyon representing the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.
The Resurrection is depicted in one of the trellises at St. Joseph Parish in South Lyon representing the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.

Just beyond the fifth and final Glorious Mystery, the St. Michael Garden welcomes visitors to sit in Adirondack chairs to pray and reflect. The St. Michael the Archangel prayer is engraved on a rock, and red plants such as Virginia Creeper give a nod to the fires of hell.

Many of the gardens are lit in the evening. From the rectory, Fr. Tokarski sees people praying by the gardens at night. Given the parish’s close proximity to downtown South Lyon, families often ride their bikes to the parish, and people stop while walking their dogs. Fr. Tokarski sees the peacefulness of the parish grounds as an extension of the peacefulness felt inside the church.

“Particularly during (the pandemic), the gardens have provided comfort to people because they’re able to be outside and pray, and to be around beautiful nature,” Kurtzweil said.

Kit Martin works in the Ten Commandments Garden at St. Joseph in South Lyon. A team of 12-18 volunteers work to beatify the parish grounds year-round.

Kit Martin and her husband work in the gardens at St. Joseph nearly every day.

“The most important thing is God’s creation. He created it, and we’re just trying to show off His creation. He makes the flowers bloom and grow,” Martin said. “We’re just happy to do this and to have Maggie to guide us. She’s an artist.”

Parishioners and visitors at St. Joseph will enjoy the gardens for years to come as the Garden Ministry quietly continues its work. Someday, the team hopes to add a Stations of the Cross Garden.

“This is what can happen when you work together for a common cause,” Kurtzweil said. “This ministry has taught me how important prayer is in people’s lives, and that has encouraged me to continue as I see the positive effect it has on people.”

St. Joseph Parish Garden Ministry

To read detailed descriptions of the gardens at St. Joseph and see additional photos, visit

For information about Badarek’s work, go to JJB Metal Art - Metal Art, Metal Art, Artist, Art.


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