Walk past St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, and one can see the history and smell the flowers.
The grounds are the responsibility of a dedicated group of volunteers known as the St. Peter’s Weeders. They come to church, get down on their knees, but the flower beds are their altar.
They keep the grounds of the first church in the First Town in the First State first rate.
“We love gardening,” said volunteer Anne Broomfield. “To me, coming from England, this is how our churches are in the countryside of England. So, it’s a very special place for me.”
The group has been gathering to garden since 2004. “We already had a group called St. Peter’s Readers, which was their book club, so I came up with the idea that we should be St. Peter’s Weeders,” said volunteer Tracy Mulveny.
St. Peter’s head gardener Helen Waite oversees the group.
Waite, who is originally from Toronto, Canada, married an American man and moved to Lewes in 1986.
She went back to school, got a master’s degree in soil science, became a horticulturalist and started her own business.
“I had been going to St. Peter’s for a long time, and I noticed how hot and bare it was. I proposed to the vestry that I plant some trees, which I did,” she said.
She planted those trees with her husband, John Feliciani, who was the director of horticulture and curator of gardens at Winterthur for 23 years. Waite said he was the fourth generation in his family to work at the stunning New Castle County property.
Waite said Feliciani was a big help to her both with advice and muscle.
“The church had its own landscaping issues,” she said. “So I wrote myself a job description, put it into the vestry, they accepted it and here I am.”
This is her second year on the job as St. Peter’s first paid gardener. She is also responsible for maintaining the landscaping at St. Peter’s Cemetery on Pilottown Road.
"Helen is a wonderful gardner who understands the importance of nature and beauty for everyday life,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Ross, rector and pastor of St. Peter’s. “She has made the gardens around St. Peter's Church and our cemetery into a welcoming oasis. Our gardens offer sanctuary in the heart of Lewes for those seeking an open space for rest, reflection and renewal. I believe she really loves her job, and I hope she knows that her work creates a living prayer space of solace and welcome.”
Waite said one of the main things her group does is plant redheads and begonias, which are subsidized by a member of the parish whose son died. She said they dedicated a fountain in the churchyard and, one day in May, all the volunteers come together to plant the red flowers in that part of the garden.
The Weeders are proud of all they plant.
“It’s a little oasis in town, and a lot of people know that it’s here and feel welcome here,” said volunteer Lynda Dunham.
“When people come to church on Sunday mornings, they will walk up to the entrance of the church [and] they always make comments about how beautiful it is,” said volunteer Brenda Mitchell.
Waite singled out volunteer Ernie Soffronoff, who has been a Weeder for 15 years. Soffronoff was instrumental in digging the meditation garden in the back of the church. He now tends to the area along the fence on Second Street. “I’ve become more familiar with hostas. They’re about the only thing that grows in the shade,” he said.
The churchyard is also a wildlife habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Foundation. “You can’t be afraid of bees,” Waite said.
“We have a deer problem,” Waite said. One of the challenges the Weeders face is trying to stay two steps ahead of the animals. They plant flowers in parts of the garden the deer seem to avoid.
The group holds two fundraisers every year. “We have a plant sale around Mother’s Day. We ask volunteers from the parish to donate plants from their gardens and we sell them,” Mulveny said. She said they buy the bulbs that they plant in the fall for the spring display.
The group also sells plants at Christmas to raise money to buy whatever is needed for the garden.
Between the two fundraisers, the group brings in $1,200 to $1,500 to supplement the parish budget.
“It’s rewarding to have a garden do exactly what we envisioned it would do – welcome people [and] provide them with some kind of visual or spiritual nourishment,” Mulveny said. “It provides us with the same thing.”