St. Philip’s project inspires
others to create gardens
Reverend James Pratt discussed the history of the church and how it fared during the COVID pandemic
By Irwin Rapoport
November 11, 2022
St. Philip’s Anglican Church, founded in 1891, has been serving the community from its current location at 25 Brock Avenue North since 1929. With its Memorial Hall, built in 1950, the church is considered a major West End institution as it straddles the Town of Montreal West and NDG along Sherbrooke Street West.
The Memorial Hall hosts many events, including concerts, bazaars, and public meetings. In fact, at one point, the Hall was rented by a dog training school, and our Irish Setter, Ginger, “failed” her course. She had a mind and will of her own and was extremely intelligent. The point is that St. Philip’s was more than just an Anglican church. It was and is a center and fixture of community life that unites many regardless of their faith and beliefs.
St. Philip’s means a lot to the people of Montreal West and NDG, and this has generated a lot of goodwill from many, including its members, whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were often members of the congregation.
The church also reflects the community’s diversity, which can be seen at the church bazaars where everyone pulls together, young and old, to welcome people with open arms and ensure that these events are a success.
St. Philip’s garden project is proving to be a great success, inspiring other churches and institutions to emulate it.
The church is led by Reverend James Pratt, originally from the Boston area by way of Newfoundland, who knows the congregation and its history and is of the view that churches are more than just houses of worship. He attended seminary at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then ordained in the Diocese of Western Newfoundland, spending six and a half years there.
Westmount Magazine had an opportunity to speak with Rev. Pratt, who was very generous with his time and thoughts.
WM: Can you tell us about the garden project and its goals?
Pratt: St Philip’s churchyard is the largest piece of privately-owned open space in Montreal-West and western NDG. We have frequently had developers approach us seeking to buy it. But in recent years, we stabilized the church’s finances (in part by selling the adjacent rectory) and reduced the need to sell land to keep the church operating. We then began to think about how we could use the land for mission and outreach to the community around us.
… we decided to transform the land from a relatively sterile lawn to a living green landscape with vegetable gardens, flowers, and trees, that can be an asset to not just our membership but to the whole community.
In light of the history of the land as a quasi-public space (used by dog walkers, children playing, and people walking the paths), our established partnership with The Depot and awareness of food security issues in the neighbourhood, and general concern over global warming and the environment, we decided to transform the land from a relatively sterile lawn to a living green landscape with vegetable gardens, flowers, and trees, that can be an asset to not just our membership but to the whole community. We expect the process of transformation to take ten or more years.
WM: What led to the creation of the garden project, and how quickly were you able to initiate it?
Pratt: Initially, one parish member started a small garden on a corner of the property. It was in a shaded area behind a hedge and not that visible. But it led to the suggestion of putting some raised garden beds along the path next to the hall. Through the Incredible Edibles group in NDG, we connected with Professor Satoshi Ikeda at Concordia. He sent us five students from a 2019 summer term class in food sustainability who needed a class project. They produced a narrative report on how a community garden could benefit the environment and the neighbourhood and constructed four raised beds that were planted for a fall harvest of radishes, lettuce, bok choy, and herbs. Their report also gave us the first draft of a vision for the entire property.
In the fall of 2019, we started planning on how to implement that larger vision. A local resident volunteered his labour to build three more raised beds, one of which is accessible for people who cannot kneel or stoop down. We connected with Lumi Kirk, a neighbour who was just completing her permaculture design certification, and she volunteered her services as a way to build her portfolio. She produced a comprehensive plan for the property. In addition, the Anglican Foundation of Canada announced that it would give twenty grants of $5,000 each to parishes undertaking projects to address climate change, and we applied. So we had big plans for the spring of 2020.
WM: St. Philips’s has a lot of green space on its grounds. Could you tell us what has been planted in terms of the gardens and trees and shrubs and flowers? Do you have plans to create a pollinator garden to help the bees, Monarch and other butterflies, and other insects that are critical to the ecosystem?
Pratt: To date, the vegetable garden now consists of nine raised beds. Plantings this year include radishes, spinach, lettuces, Asian greens, pole beans, snow peas, zucchini, tomatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, dill, garlic, and mustard greens. We just constructed an herb spiral with thymes, oregano, basils, savoury, rosemary, lavender, tarragon, chives, garlic chives, parsley, chamomile, and cilantro. For trees, we have native plums, mulberries, pears, crabapples, a peach, and an apricot. We also planted a mountain ash, which will provide berries for birds and keep them away from the other fruit trees.
‘We appreciate donations, particularly of vegetable seeds and seedlings. For donations of other plants, we ask that donors please check with us to make sure we have or can make a place for it.’
There is also a huge Saskatoon berry bush planted a generation ago, which we have incorporated into the design. We also have a raspberry and blackberry patch, and a pollinator garden with rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), echinacea, monarda (bee balm), milkweed, coreopsis, false indigo, chrysanthemums, cosmos, wild strawberry, and comfrey. An old tree stump is planted with mint and wildflowers.
WM: How can people help out with the garden project in terms of providing various types of plants, trees, flowers, soil, and other essentials?
Pratt: We appreciate donations, particularly of vegetable seeds and seedlings. For donations of other plants, we ask that donors please check with us to make sure we have or can make a place for it. Future plans include creating a guild of blueberries and lingonberries around our beautiful blue spruce, so we will be looking for those plants. We are also looking for donations of benches and possibly a picnic table so that people can spend time in and enjoy the garden. We also invite people who are interested to volunteer working in the garden. We have a good team, about half members of the church and half from the neighbourhood, who “adopt” a particular area or sign up for regular watering shifts, or gather for occasional group workdays.
WM: St. Philip’s garden project being a success, is this something that other churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, schools, and other institutions with land could emulate?
Pratt: It is. I just had a conversation with a representative from a church in Ormstown, Qc, who came to see what we are doing and to think about what they could do with their land. They are in a rural agricultural area, so they probably won’t include much in the way of vegetable gardens or fruit trees, but might focus on wildlife habitat or creating meditative walking paths. There are already a lot of houses of worship across Canada and the U.S. being innovative with their properties, and no two projects look the same.
WM: How did St. Philip’s fare during the COVID pandemic, and what steps were taken to keep the congregation active and united?
Pratt: We shuttered the building in March 2020 and pivoted to online worship. People really came together to make it work and to make sure that everyone was included, especially those who don’t have computers. We quickly developed a network for phone contact and delivery of service bulletins and newsletters to those without email, and it actually brought us closer together as we formed personal connections across social and ethnic divides.
A great benefit of the garden project was that it brought a group of people together who could socialize at a distance as they worked. We also held a few parish workdays where ten to 15 members would come on a Saturday to perform easy maintenance tasks outdoors or work in the gardens and break out of their isolation while remaining safe.
‘A great benefit of the garden project was that it brought a group of people together who could socialize at a distance as they worked.’
WM: The pandemic tested the community and individuals in many common and unique ways. To what extent did faith help sustain the members of your flock in those trying times?
Pratt: Back in the days of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked how he could keep hope in what then seemed like an impossible struggle. His answer was, “I’ve read the Book, I know how it ends.” A mature faith helps us see the big picture and keep an eye on the long term rather than focus only on the moment. As soon as we realized the lockdown was not going to be just a few weeks, we began to pay attention to what we were learning from the changes forced on us by the pandemic and how we could use those lessons to emerge stronger.
WM: How would you describe your experience as a minister in the pandemic?
Pratt: A substantial part of my seminary training, and continually reinforced when we gather as clergy for continuing education, dealt with the need for the church to continually adapt and change, and on leading that change. But the church is often a tradition-bound institution that changes very slowly and, often, grudgingly. The pandemic has forced us to change how we worship, how we relate to one another, how we form community, and how we serve others. So, despite the stress, the steep learning curve, and the uncertainty, I also have a sense of joy, wonder, and excitement seeing the new things the Spirit is doing among our congregation.
‘We support The Depot Community Food Centre, Mile End Community Mission and St. Michael’s Mission, and together with St. Thomas’ Church in NDG, have a refugee sponsorship committee…’
WM: Could you tell us more about St. Philip’s and its history and the community that it serves?
Pratt: St Philip’s was founded in 1891. The present church was built in 1929, and the Memorial Hall added in 1950. Originally serving residents of Montreal-West and NDG, our membership now includes people from the downtown area, Westmount, Cote-des-Neiges, St-Laurent, Lasalle, Lachine, the West Island, Chateauguay, Brossard, and Greenfield Park. Members come from over twenty different countries. We support The Depot Community Food Centre, Mile End Community Mission and St. Michael’s Mission, and together with St. Thomas’ Church in NDG, have a refugee sponsorship committee, which has successfully sponsored one refugee family and has two other sponsorships in progress.
WM: St. Philip’s is very much an example of a church based on serving the community, with various programs to help individuals and groups, provide Christmas baskets for the needy, and bring people together for common causes such as concern for the environment, helping seniors, etc. How would you describe the role of St. Philip’s and the desire of the congregation to make a difference?
Pratt: In the past, St Philip’s was known for raising money for missions, both locally and globally, such as sponsoring the construction of a church on a First Nations reserve or supporting an eye hospital in India. In recent years, we have been turning our attention to more local needs where we can form more personal connections and see an impact.
We now provide Christmas gifts every year for about twenty or 25 children served by the Mile End Mission. We have served as a collection and sorting centre for the Depot’s annual food drive (suspended due to the pandemic) and collected clothing for St Michael’s Mission. Dealing with local issues and needs can be more tangible for people and increases awareness. It’s also easier to see the results and give people confidence that they are making a difference.
To learn more about St. Philip’s Anglican Church, visit facebook.com/StPhilipMontrealWest
Images: courtesy of St. Philip’s Anglican Church
Read also other articles by Irwin Rapoport
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.