By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Michael Panther prays the rosary every morning, a devotion that inspired creation of the Prayer Garden outside Ss. Mary & Joseph Church of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison.
“We first humbly praise the Lord for giving us the garden. It is beautiful; we love it!” said Father Joseph Phung, the parish’s pastor. “We have talked about it for quite a long time and did not know when and how to start it and to get it done. Then COVID-19 happened, which gave Michael Panther, the parish maintenance person and spearhead of the project, more time to focus on the project.”
“With the generosity of the parishioners and others in contributing money, materials and labor, we are so happy to see the garden completed. It consists of the Stations of the Cross, the rosary in the middle, and flowers and plants along the wooden fence; the fence gives the garden some level of privacy,” Father Phung said.
“In addition to our two beautiful churches (the other is Sacred Heart), the Prayer Garden gives the parishioners a private, beautiful place to pray, meditate and relax before and after Mass. We gather every Thursday evening to say the rosary when weather permits (otherwise, prayer takes place inside the church). The garden also serves to bring people together as they come to meet and visit one another there.”
Panther said a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, left over from the sale of St. Joseph Church in Fort Madison some years ago, had been in need of a good spot for display at Ss. Mary & Joseph. “A few years ago, we built a pedestal to place the statue in the back yard of Ss. Mary & Joseph.” However, he thought Mary needed a garden.
“I had seen prayer gardens and Stations of the Cross at other parishes from time to time and I thought we should have one, too. I’ve had this in my mind for several years ever since that statue got moved over.”
His youngest son, Matthew Panther, who operates a fabrication business in Texas, agreed to create laser images for the stations on aluminum. The elder Panther built small wooden houses to protect the images. “I’m a retired heating and air conditioning guy, but I like cabinet making as a hobby.”
Constructing the wooden houses proved to be enjoyable. “If I got to a point where I didn’t know how I was going to do something, I’d just put it aside and maybe the next day when I prayed the rosary the answer would come to me.” Earlier, he created a mock-up and showed it to Father Phung, who gave his blessing to the project. “So I started building.”
The Prayer Garden is located in a large grassy area between the church and the rectory. “That was pretty much the only open large area we had on church property that would lend itself to the Prayer Garden,” Panther said. Other volunteers helped build the 6-foot privacy fence to help create a more intimate prayer setting, helped mount the stations, and created a path of nearly 3,000 paving stones. Holy Family’s youth group also contributed to the effort.
Another parishioner bought plants for the garden. “We’ll plant flowers, perennials and annuals so next year we will have a lot of beautiful flowers,” Panther said. He hopes the Prayer Garden provides visitors with some quiet time for prayer outdoors. “When the weather is nice, it’s always nice to be outside.”