By Abby Rolland
On East Lehigh Avenue in the Kensington neighborhood, one can spot two attached rowhomes, with each one having a garden area behind them.
While seemingly nondescript on the outside, the homes support the grassroots efforts of two individuals and activists dedicated to serving their community.
Johanna Berrigan and Mary Beth Appel are both trained healthcare providers and belong to the Catholic Worker Movement. Started by Dorothy Day, the movement and its adherents strive to provide hospitality toward those on the margins of society.
Berrigan and Appel embody that idea every day in the work they do. They have managed multiple projects to help those in their community for more than 30 years, including the five-bedroom row home next to their own that’s run as a hospitality home; a clinic a few blocks away providing healthcare and showers; and co-founders and collaborators for a healthcare clinic in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. They’ve also been working in another way to give back to their local community – through the rehabilitation of a communal, shared garden behind their home.
The garden behind the house of hospitality has long been a vegetable garden, with both the house and the local community benefiting from what’s produced.
Through a variety of legal and governmental regulations, the lot could have been sold to developers to build a housing unit; through a combined effort of the East Kensington Neighbors Association (EKNA), the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, Berrigan, and Appel, City Council approved that the lot be put into a land trust for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to oversee.
Berrigan and Appel transformed the lot into a garden; however, because of the legal wrangling and the pandemic, the garden fell into a state of neglect. Efforts to preserve it year after year were successful; however, what it most needed was a full overhaul to maximize its use and the community benefit.
That’s when harp-weaver came into the picture. After volunteering at the clinic with a colleague, harp-weaver principal Teresa Araco Rodgers spent time with Berrigan and Appel and recognized the impact that a garden could have on the neighborhood. Berrigan and Appel spoke of their vision for the garden as a shared community space. With one of harp-weaver’s clients particularly interested in local grassroots efforts, Rodgers saw the potential for the client to contribute to a project that could transform the garden into something special and needed in the Kensington neighborhood.
When the client saw the potential, they agreed. Together with PHS, a plan was designed to revive the garden. After the initial cost was more than anticipated, Berrigan, Appel, and harp-weaver were able to bring together other funders (in addition to the original client) to pay for the transformation.
And transformed it was. Over a one-month period, crews killed the garden weeds, laid gravel for pathways, added boulders to be sitting areas, planted new plants, and installed a wooden gazebo.
Compare the before and after photos, and one can visibly see the difference in the garden.
And Berrigan and Appel have big plans and bigger ideas for how the community can best benefit from the space. They plan on hosting regular events, such as counseling sessions, listening sessions, and/or get-togethers for local community organizations’ staff, volunteers, clinic patient, and hospitality guests. They hope one day to also offer open hours for neighbors to use the space. They’ve connected with nearby neighbors to share updates about the garden and to elicit feedback on how those neighbors envision using the space.
However it will be used, the transformed garden and the vegetable garden next door will benefit the local community.
“We want this to be a safe and welcoming oasis,” Berrigan explained.
Research supports that idea. According to the University of Delaware, interaction with gardens and natural spaces offers a variety of mental, physical and social benefits for humans, ranging from stress reduction, quicker healing, and mitigation of Attention Deficit Disorder in children to decreasing crime and air pollution. Sustainable sites consider human energy and creativity as a renewable resource, recognizing the potential for healthy living and employment conditions.
Thanks to Berrigan and Appel’s hard work and imagination, and the willingness of several funders to support the effort, the garden on Lehigh Avenue will be a place for community gathering and convening, a place for green in an area of creeping gentrification and concrete buildings, and a place for finding peace and comfort.
To learn more about the House of Grace Garden, check out this article from Neighborhood Gardens Trust.