Petal power: creating joy in a vase

Two volunteers learn the art of making dazzling arrangements.

Photos courtesy of Timothy Mannion
Beautiful bouquets: The Rev. John Mennell rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, N.J., admires a Thanksgiving flower arrangement created by volunteer Timothy Mannion.
Photos courtesy of Timothy Mannion
A breath of fresh air: Spring flowers from the parish gardens – including dogwood blossoms and tulips – welcomed newcomers to the church at a reception.

Gifted amateurs – with no background in horticulture or floral design – can learn to create inspired flower arrangements. Tim Mannion and Gordon Frey of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, N.J., are perfect examples.

Prior to arriving at St. Luke’s, neither Mr. Frey, a faculty member at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, or Mr. Mannion, who spends his weekdays at a job in information technology, had worked with flowers.

Now the two, assisted by a handful of dedicated volunteers, create singular arrangements for Sunday services, feast days, and church celebrations.

Both men were inspired to join the church’s flower guild after seeing designs created by its founder, Mary Ann Renn, a woman whose many talents include gardening, flower arranging, and motivating church volunteers.

After teaching her new volunteers the basics, Mrs. Renn let them learn on the job.  “I knew right away that you knew what to do,” she reassured Frey as he began to work on his first arrangement.

Now, with Renn busy running the church’s successful soup kitchen, Frey and Mannion head the flower guild.

The sky is the limit when it comes to their designs. A few years ago on Palm Sunday, a towering six-foot array of forsythia and palms dominated space at the back of the church.

A recent celebration of St. Luke’s Day featured garlands of russet fabric that soared over the sanctuary, connecting the pillars that support the vaulted ceiling.  The matched pair of large, autumn-hued arrangements on the high altar contained foliage in the same russet shade, with flowers and greens massed in a brilliant display.

What do these sumptuous arrangements contribute to the church? “Joy,” says Mannion, who adds that the flowers also contribute color, life, and a visual dimension to the worship experience.

“The flowers that decorate the sanctuary are an amazing sign of God’s ongoing creation that lives in each person who passes through,” adds the Rev. John Mennell, St. Luke’s rector.

Except in rare instances, the flower guild uses natural materials, including fresh and dried flowers and greens.

Sometimes they also make use of what Mannion calls “roadsidia”: found materials that might include dried weeds as well as the phragmites or reeds that are often found growing in roadside drainage ditches.

Greenery and flowering branches are often clipped from shrubs and trees on the church property.

The flower guild is also known for making skillful use of fortuitous “finds.” One year the volunteers constructed an Easter arrangement around a large flowering magnolia branch that had blown down in a storm several days earlier.

The two men take great pride in the fact that they never duplicate themselves in arrangements.

“We’re continually surprised, every week,” says Mannion. Often the surprises start when the men size up the contents of the buckets of flowers and greens that are sent every Saturday by a local florist.

“The stems themselves inspire you,” he says.

Inspiration also comes from the church itself, a stone structure built in 1889 and remodeled to its current Gothic configuration in the late 1920s.

“Every time I walk in here,” says Frey, “I think of something we could do.” The flower arrangements complement the abundant decorative elements in the church, from the jewel tones of the old stained glass to the iris-shaped finials on the ends of the choir pews.

The men sometimes choose colors associated with specific feast days or seasons of the liturgical year.

Every Easter a “garden” created from a multicolored assortment of potted tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, lilies, greenery, moss, and rocks spills over the area around the altar table at the front of the church.

For special occasions not related to the liturgical calendar, anything goes. The prospect of a visit from a gospel choir, for example, inspired Frey and Mannion to create freewheeling designs in “jazzy” shades of purple and orange.

In the past few years, the two men have sometimes incorporated fabric backdrops or swags to create depth or unify design elements.

To Mr. Mennell, the rector, the constantly changing, diverse arrangements mirror the composition of the congregation, which is also different from one week to the next.

“Both show us all a little more about all that God continues to create,” he says.

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