It was all cause for a double-take at the flower show.
There were flowers, of course, but attendees’ interest was piqued by the 7-foot replica of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the mannequins in formal attire standing under the arbor and the sign saying “Archdiocese of Hartford Landscape #4.”
Plus, there were brochures inviting non-Catholics to a Catholic Mass.
The exhibit by the Archdiocese of Hartford was a surprising and welcome entry into the landscape design competition at the annual Connecticut Flower & Garden Show, held this year on Feb. 23-26 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.
Each year, more than 40,000 gardeners attend the four-day event to get their first taste of spring. In addition to an acre of amazing garden landscapes, the show includes a juried flower show, vendors and educational seminars.
This year, many flower show attendees were introduced to the Cathedral of St. Joseph — and to the Archdiocese of Hartford — for the first time. Conversely, practicing Catholics in attendance were visibly delighted to see the archdiocese present at the show.
“It was very busy and a success,” said Mike McGarry, Grand Knight of the cathedral’s Knights of Columbus council. He helped to staff the exhibit, which was co-sponsored by the cathedral’s Knights and Hartford Blooms Garden Tours. “We gave out huge stacks of brochures about the Catholic Mass and many people inquired about the idea of getting married at the cathedral.”
McGarry is also the person who dreamed up the idea of taking the archdiocese to the flower show.
From invitation to inspiration
Kristie Gonzalves, president of North East Expos, which produces the show, explained how it happened.
“I reached out to Mike, looking for folks to contribute a landscape from Hartford,” she said.
Gonzalves said she knew that McGarry was an avid gardener who had many connections with the city’s community gardens. He also founded Hartford Blooms, an organization that offers neighborhood and garden tours. Additionally, McGarry and the cathedral Knights sold pansies, mums and poinsettias to cathedral parishioners “to enliven the parish,” and they planted annuals each year in front of the rectory.
“It’s all kind of linked — the neighborhood, the garden tours and the flowers at the cathedral,” McGarry said of his many gardening-related projects. “We’re making people’s lives better through flowers.”
As for his concept of an exhibit at this year’s show, Gonzalves said, “He really took the ball and ran with it.”
“For some reason the Holy Spirit struck,” McGarry said, recalling how the idea came to him.
‘Come to the cathedral’
“Since there’ll be extensive work at the cathedral, I thought we should tell people about that,” McGarry explained.
He was referring to development of the Cathedral of St. Joseph campus as part of a multi-year project by the archdiocese. The project will include public gardens, a front plaza, a community meeting hall and an illuminated steeple and cross. The Hartford Bishops’ Foundation is currently fundraising for the endeavor.
McGarry also saw the show as an opportunity to let people of all faiths know that they are welcome to visit.
“Father [James]Shanley is very open about people coming to the cathedral, no matter their race or religion,” McGarry said of the cathedral’s rector. “Just come to the cathedral. It’s open and it’s a beautiful place.”
Finally, McGarry wanted to let practicing Catholics know that the cathedral is available for weddings.
“Anybody in the archdiocese can have a wedding there. It’s a great place for weddings,” he said, and will be even better when the public gardens are added.
It takes a city
During the four-day show, McGarry, 72, ran back and forth, staffing both the archdiocese’s landscape exhibit and the Hartford Blooms booth.
Other volunteers also helped him work the show floor. One of them, Dr. Ed Johnson, a former administrator of St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, has known McGarry for 30 years. “He’s got the biggest heart in Hartford,” Johnson said.
According to McGarry, the exhibit at the CT Flower & Garden Show was the product of a small budget and numerous volunteers, including members of the Knights and Hartford Blooms, friends and neighbors and Hartford-area artists.
“The way you do this is you try to do a favor for someone every day with no hint of payback,” McGarry said. “Someday it comes back to you. That’s how I go through life.”
One unexpected benefit of his life philosophy materialized in May 2015 when McGarry was hit by a car while riding his bike home from working in the Niles Street Community Garden. The accident put him in intensive care, prompting friends to host a fundraiser at a local pub to help defray medical expenses. Today, he is fully recovered and back at work as co-publisher of Hartford Publications.
A master at social networking the old-fashioned way, McGarry’s parish and personal contacts came through once again for the show:
- The Knights fashioned a cathedral replica out of durable PVC. Then it was painted by artist Tao LaBossiere, well-known in Hartford for his tromp l’oeil paintings and murals. “He put all his jobs aside for us,” McGarry said.
- A fourth-degree Knight donated the arbor, which was later soldered, sandblasted and repainted by the staff at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music theater shop.
- Fresh Start Pallet Products, a social enterprise of Grace Lutheran Church in Hartford that employs economically disadvantaged area residents, loaned two whimsically painted benches made from recycled pallets.
- Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon, a fine clothier in downtown Hartford, provided mannequins in midnight blue formal wear.
Impromptu landscape designer
Julie Mullen, 58, a fine artist who works with a number of mediums, created the landscape design.
A parishioner of the cathedral, she etched the metal sunburst on the cathedral’s Holy Door of Mercy and crafted its floral decorations for Advent, Christmas and Easter.
Regarding her contribution to the flower show, Mullen said, “Mike had the idea, but he needed someone to work it into the flower show and I was happy to do it for the cathedral. If it will help get people curious about going to Mass or coming back, then it’s worth every minute.”
Mullen said she and McGarry worked quickly.
Two days before the show, they went to the convention center to size up the area allotted for display. The next day, they purchased most plants on-site, selecting birch trees, azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns, roses, primroses, Jewish ivy and Lenten roses. For the arbor, they chose hanging eucalyptus and pussy willows.
“I was just trying to get color and texture,” Mullen said.
Her favorite was the spring-green Lenten rose. “I wanted that specifically because we were going into Lent,” she explained. “It’s also one of the first flowers that comes out” in spring.
With those items, Mullen devised a landscape design plan on the spot. “You say a prayer before you start,” she said, “and jump in.”
“I’m happy Julie took it over, believe me,” McGarry said, with gratitude and relief.
According to McGarry, exhibiting at the show will have ongoing benefits. He plans to transport the cathedral replica to future events to keep publicizing the cathedral improvement plans.
Another happy outcome, he said, was a donation by the Connecticut Rose Society. After disassembling their own “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” exhibit, the group donated its rose bushes to the Cathedral of St. Joseph for planting in the public gardens this spring.