By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – May is the month devoted to honoring Mary, a long-standing Catholic tradition. At St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, the parishioners have special reason to celebrate their devotion to the Blessed Mother this May.

A new prayer garden was dedicated May 8 by Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald.

The prayer garden features a rosary walk with a Pieta statue and a waterfall garden with the Stations of the Cross on a wooden fence. There is a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes next to the waterfall and a grotto with a fountain and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The prayer garden, built in the backyard of the former convent of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is an area of contemplation and peace.

Father Keith Chylinski, parochial vicar at St. Anselm’s, was the driving force behind the prayer garden, which was built for $50,000 through the sale of memorial bricks and private donations.

“The idea came up at a parish assembly in 2008,” Father Chylinski explained. “It was approved by our pastor, Father Thomas Dunleavy, and I was willing to spearhead it. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

The prayer garden was built in four phases, he said, beginning with a pathway, a cross and a garden.

“It’s a pretty large plot of land, so the idea was to continue it further,” said Father Chylinski, now in his fourth year at St. Anselm. “The entrance was next, followed by the rosary garden. Last summer, work began on the waterfall, a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and, finally, the Stations of the Cross.”

He said many parishioners volunteered their labor, including a contractor who built the pathway and the brick construction. “I was sort of the coordinator, but I got my hands dirty, too,” Father Chylinski said. “What I said at the dedication was that the prayer garden was built by the community, for the community.”

Bill Fitzgerald, a member of St. Anselm for 48 of its 50 years, explained the parish’s strong devotion to the Blessed Mother.

“This neighborhood is about 50 years old,” he said. “Mostly newlyweds moved in back then. The wives had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns were here (for 38 years). Frank and Adele Nessel (members since the parish was founded in 1962) were instrumental in getting a parish rosary established.”

The rosary is prayed weekdays before the 8:30 a.m. Mass. Now parishioners can walk through the rosary garden as they pray – the walking stones representing beads of the rosary.

“Father Chylinski was given the responsibility to develop the garden,” Frank Nessel said. “It’s much more elaborate than originally planned. He got the volunteers and the elements to make it happen. He put in a lot of hard work. He lived with it, day in and day out.”

When the I.H.M. sisters left in 2001, their convent was converted to a residence for the parish priests on the second floor. The first floor became a spirituality center.

Following the 10 a.m. Mass on May 8, the parishioners walked into the prayer garden for the dedication by Bishop Fitzgerald. “It was really beautiful with the fountain, the birds singing,” Adele Nessel said. “We sang hymns and a little girl crowned the Blessed Mother. It brings tears to your eyes.”

Perhaps longtime parishioner Bill Fitzgerald summed it up best.

“We’re a rowhouse community here,” he said. “This prayer garden is an oasis in the Northeast. It’s going to draw people.

“Our parish isn’t any different; there is a decline in church attendance. If anyone can bring it back, it will be Mary. It’s another indication of our love for Mary.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.