A pilgrim's progress: Monastery garden resurrected by devoted landscape architect

The garden of Mount St. Macrina Byzantine Catholic Monastery in Uniontown gets new life

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Tall grasses sway in the soft breeze, moving back and forth in unison, serving as a soothing backdrop to the white Our Lady of Victory statue at Mount St. Macrina Byzantine Catholic Monastery in Uniontown.

But until recently it didn't look this way.

For nearly 80 years, thousands of Byzantine Catholics have traveled across the country to worship here during an annual Labor Day weekend pilgrimage; it's the oldest and largest such pilgrimage in the United States.

In 2008, landscape architect Laura Patterson-Santore was one of those attending an outdoor liturgy during the pilgrimage. Even though the devout Catholic was supposed to be absorbed in the service, she was transfixed by the Our Lady of Victory Prayer Garden. She had an epiphany thinking of what it could be.


She had seen the space since childhood. The garden -- basically a fish pond with the statue in the center -- had fallen into disrepair because the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great who had tended it had died.

"It was surrounded with a chain-link fence with yellow corrugated plastic," Mrs. Patterson-Santore said recently with a smile. For decades children enjoyed the goldfish in the pond, and the fence kept them at a safe distance.

She was determined to renovate the garden. The first step was getting permission. So she sent a message to monastery leaders through her mother, who is a Basilian associate, a lay person who engages in the mission of the order.

It didn't take much convincing. Sister Barbara Jean Mihalchick, OSBM, was overjoyed to move forward.

Ms. Patterson-Santore, 31, began to look for funding when her great-uncle George Kushner fell ill. He was looking for a project to fund in remembrance of his family so a new garden was born.

She roughed out drawings of how to best use the space, bringing the statue out of the center of the pond and placing it next to a path. Work began in 2009, and she has put the finishing touches on her project.

Tall grasses frame the white figure, and smaller varieties are skillfully tucked into the garden. "The grasses that surround Mary right now had a very nice halo effect, very soft, very reverent," she said. There's a constant, steady breeze that keeps all of the grasses moving.

Other design details throughout the garden echo the history of the area. Beautiful pieces of turquoise bottle glass surround a fountain that occupies the center of the pond. The glass was donated decades ago from a nearby factory that had closed. Glass, along with coal, was a rich industrial tradition in the Laurel Highlands.

Mrs. Patterson-Santore was able to re-purpose hand-cut native stone that originally made up a wall surrounding the property. The large rocks are now strategically placed around the garden, providing form and texture.

A redbud tree and crape myrtle serve as the garden's cornerstones. The native redbud has biblical significance. According to legend, Judas hanged himself from the tree after betraying Jesus.

"The crape myrtle was very important to me as well," she says, "It blooms in late August, early September, which was around the pilgrimage time."

The color palette is subdued; shades of pinks and lavenders were chosen as they are all "reminiscent of the colors of Mary, mother of God," says Mrs. Patterson-Santore. She also used lamb's ears, plants known for their soft texture, because of their botanical name, Stachys byzantina, a play on Byzantine.

Mount St. Macrina is in the former home of Josiah Van Kirk Thompson, a coal baron and banker who built the estate in 1903. He lost his fortune before 1920, and it was put up for sale in 1933 as his health was failing. With the help of the bishop and others, the Sisters of St. Basil the Great raised $10,000 for the down payment and bought the mansion and other buildings on 200 acres for $50,000.

It was converted into a convent and shrine and now the property includes a motherhouse, religious gift shop, cemetery, senior living center and more.

In 1999 the U.S. Department of Interior named Mount St. Macrina to the National Registry of Historic Places under its former name, Oak Hill Estate. It is open to the public.

Bonnie Balas, a volunteer at Mount St. Macrina, has been coming here her whole life. She watched as the garden was transformed over the past few years. "This garden is the climax of what these immigrant ancestors would have liked to have seen," she said.

Standing in front of the huge columns of the Mount St. Macrina House of Prayer, Sister Mihalchick discusses the change in the garden. "Laura discovered it in it's un-enhanced state, shall I say, and rescued it as a place of beauty again."

For Mrs. Patterson-Santore, her reward comes from garden visitors.

"I finally feel at peace. One of the greatest joys I have is watching people interact with it. Now I have what I was after in seeing people sit during the liturgies. They are just enjoying it. That's the best thing a garden designer can have."


• Mount St. Macrina: www.sistersofstbasil.org or 724-438-8644.

• Laura Patterson-Santore, a landscape architect for Origin 4 Design: www.origin4design.com or 412-448-8141.


Doug Oster: doster@post-gazette.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.


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