A new initiative spearheaded by Bishop Cathleen Bascom will create a series of specialized gardens on the south side of the diocesan property in Topeka known as Bethany Place. The spaces are intended for use by the public, and will include a prairie and pollinator garden, a culinary garden, a meditation and water garden, and an outdoor chapel.
Pathways will connect the spaces, and interpretive signs will inform people of what each area is and what it offers.
The gardens will occupy space on the east and south sides of the property, which totals about three acres and includes Upton Hall Conference Center and Bethany House, the former diocesan office building.
The gardens, along with new efforts to reach out to the neighborhood by Diocesan Missioner the Rev. Jennifer Allen, form the ministry known as Bethany House and Garden.
A love of prairies
In an interview Bishop Bascom said she had a longtime love of the prairie, and while dean of the cathedral in Des Moines, Iowa, she helped create a pocket prairie garden after the catastrophic 2008 flood there as a way to help trap excess water run-off.
She said the book City Bountiful, about urban greenspaces, early on also was a major influence. “The book showed that urban greenspace is an important asset, but a precarious one,” she said. “Land can become valuable to developers. But I realized churches have this kind of land and are more likely to keep it, because of our sense of God and creation, and a call to the common good, and we’re not so profit driven.”
The materials she submitted when standing for election as bishop in 2018 made clear her commitment to creation care. But once she had been elected and saw the Bethany Place land again (she was acquainted with it from her time as chaplain at K-State in the 1990s), she was certain it could provide more than just lawn that needed mowing.
“But having done this once before,” she said, “I was committed that we needed to listen to what others would want from this land. We have a kaleidoscope of interests and complexities here. What do Topekans want? The cathedral? The diocese?”
In the fall of 2019, just months after her consecration as bishop, she began conversations with a variety of community leaders to gain input. Those meetings ended when the coronavirus pandemic began, but Bishop Bascom said it turned out to be a bit of a blessing. “We slowed down, and it led to more listening.”
Listening to the neighborhood
That listening was facilitated in large part by Allen, who was hired as the bishop’s curate for mission in June 2020 after her graduation from General Theological Seminary and her ordination as a transitional deacon; she was ordained a priest in January.
Her job not only was to help with the garden portion of Bethany House and Garden but also to do additional outreach to the neighborhood, something for which she has great passion.
Allen said she got right to work and had what would amount to about 75 meetings with a variety of area groups and leaders, most of which were online or by phone, but a few took place outdoors, with distancing. “I spent a lot of time hearing the hopes and concerns about this property,” she said. A desire for a place of respite in nature, with a focus on education, emerged as a primary goal, Allen said.
Apart from the gardens, she also now offers sidewalk prayers, hosts a weekly Bible study and receives prayer requests through cards distributed in care bags for people picking up Saturday sandwiches from Grace Cathedral.
Meetings with the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, and officials at Topeka Center for
Advanced Learning and Careers, as well as at Topeka High School (located next door to Bethany Place) and area elementary schools, provided guidance on how the gardens could serve students as an outdoor laboratory — butterflies for younger students, produce for high school students in culinary classes.
In February of this year, three online listening sessions for educators, neighbors and Episcopalians provided greater clarity on how they saw the gardens serving people. “Out of these meetings, food gardens were a priority,” Allen said.
Landscape architect Scott Bingham from Kansas City took all the suggestions and created three possible configurations for the gardens and chapel. Those were presented to key participants on Feb. 20 during an in-person meeting called a design charrette, and their input helped refine the best options. From that came the final plan.
Beginning from an entry portal on the southeast side of the property will be the prairie and pollinator garden, filled with a variety of native plants and grasses. That area also will have plants that attract and support pollinators like butterflies and bees, creating a Monarch Waystation, for insects that have suffered as their habitat has been reduced in urban areas.
A culinary garden will be next on the path, growing a variety of vegetables and herbs in raised-bed containers as well as in-ground plantings. Bethany Place, which is just a few blocks west of downtown Topeka, is in a food desert, so some of the produce will be set aside for residents of nearby neighborhoods. Some will go to a local Baptist church’s program to provide fresh food to hungry people in the area.
A partnership with local schools will give students farm-to-table culinary experiences, and some of what is grown may be used in cooking classes in the kitchen of Grace Cathedral, the property’s neighbor to the north.
An outdoor chapel will use an existing terrace off the south side of Bethany House as a refurbished altar area, and seating will be provided on benches nearby. Outdoor worship will be offered for those living in the neighborhood, as well as for diocesan groups.
On the northwest edge of the property, near the cathedral parking lot, will be the meditation and rain garden. With many trees already there, the garden will emphasize a sense of quiet, with a series of small intimate spaces, to offer a place for prayer and contemplation. This garden also will model best water practices, with deep-rooted plants helping to filter pollution coming from the nearby parking lot.
The existing three acres of Bethany Place is what remains from an initial gift of 20 acres in 1860 from the founders of Topeka to the diocese to house an Episcopal girls’ school, which became the College of the Sisters of Bethany. The school stood on the grounds from 1870 until it closed in 1928.
The two stone buildings on the property are original school buildings, both built in 1875. Bethany House first served as the school’s laundry, to wash linens and clothing of boarding students. Upton Hall was the school’s stable, needed for horses to pull the buggies that took students on errands in an era before automobiles. Both also have been remodeled over time and served as the homes of three bishops (James Wise, Goodrich Fenner and Edward Turner).
To honor the women who studied at the school, the culinary gardens will be dedicated to them, recalling the picnics they had on the grounds.
The land given to the diocese originally was home to the Kanza People, now known as the Kaw Nation. They lived across most of eastern Kansas, with hunting grounds extending far to the west. The land then would have been part of the tallgrass prairie, 140 million acres of waving grasses that extended from Indiana to Kansas and from Canada to Texas.
To honor those who first lived on this property, the prairie and pollinator garden will be dedicated to the Kanza People.
The outdoor chapel will honor the members of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church, an historically Black congregation whose building stood just a few blocks away. It was one of only four Black churches in the diocese, and it was closed in 1964. A handful of former St. Simon’s members have been involved in conversations about the chapel’s dedication.
In order to make these plans a reality, Bishop Bascom has set out to raise the funds necessary to begin construction this fall. Estimates put the total cost at about $500,000, which covers site preparation, irrigation, walkways and stone paths, benches, raised vegetable beds, more than 30 new trees, and all the plants.
From a 2020 surplus, the Council of Trustees set aside $50,000 for this project, and a donor already has given another $50,000. A variety of grants from Episcopal Church entities have provided another $49,000.
The bishop will be inviting partners to join in bringing this venture to fruition by contributing financial support, time or services.
And thinking beyond just the creation of the gardens, Bishop Bascom sees an increased role for the entire property, centered around Upton Hall Conference Center, with things like spiritual retreats being offered and an expansion of the spiritual direction currently being provided.
“I hope that, at least for some, this can be a unifying effort across the diocese,” she said.