In the Diocese of Los Angeles, Ontario parish dedicates ‘Rebecca’s Garden’ as community resource for rest, contemplation

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Nov 11, 2021

Members and guests of Christ Church, Ontario, walk the labyrinth in the congregation’s newly dedicated Rebecca’s Garden on Nov. 6. Photo: Keith Yamamoto

[Diocese of Los Angeles] About 75 people celebrated the grand opening of Rebecca’s Garden Nov. 6 at Christ Episcopal Church in Ontario, a contemplative space for community and healing created entirely by parishioners, according to the Rev. Gianluigi Gugliermetto, rector.

Following an organ and harp concert dedicated to the memory of longtime church organist Rebecca Rollins, for whom the garden is named, attendees flowed along a network of paths amid the rich melody of a Native American flute, “to consecrate the space with our presence and our stories,” he said.

Garden stories from the Sikh, Muslim, pagan and Christian traditions were offered while butterflies and bees flitted amongst the garden’s olive trees, lush Mexican bush sage, orange pyracantha, bright California fuchsia, and English and Spanish lavender plants.

Benches and a Tohono O’odham Native American-inspired stone labyrinth offer space for rest, refreshment and contemplation, part of an expansive vision begun in early 2019 to open the campus to its neighbors, offer space for composting, and for planting vegetables for local food banks. Eventually, Gugliermetto hopes to offer other features, including a café service, a healing herb garden and docent-led educational tours for children.

Work on the garden continued throughout the pandemic, and its completion was made possible through generous grants from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and other sources. The garden joins Christ Church’s Center for Spirituality at Ontario in offering opportunities for deepening spiritual connection and theological reflection, he said.

“The idea is these three entities—the parish, the center and the garden – are like a trinity, interacting with each other,” said Gugliermetto. “So, the parish keeps its Anglo-catholic tradition, the intellectual aspect works in the center … and the garden is the physical place in which people can meet.”

The garden is envisioned as a gift to the community, where visitors “can find this atmosphere of beauty, contemplation, silence, can have a cup of coffee, if they want, and maybe find somebody to have a chat,” he said. “And if the conversation goes any deeper, it can be a way to show that the way we think about Christianity is … about being accepting, about being welcoming … and not about pushing doctrine in the face of people, because that has nothing to do with who you really are.”

The center – recently renamed Spirit, Earth, Action – offers yoga practice, silent retreats, and online workshops, including an upcoming Nov. 20, 2021 event (Zoom link here) focused on what it means to work at communal projects while belonging to different religions. The workshop will be led by Richard Rose, department chair and program director for the Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies at the University of La Verne.

Rebecca Rollins

The garden was named for Rollins, a recitalist and professor emerita of Saddleback College, who initially dreamed of transforming a desolate back lot into a lush garden, recalled Ashanti Smalls, a landscape architect and longtime church member. He helped design the project along with Patricia Reyes-Cappelli and the church’s garden committee members.

“I worked with Rebecca when we first started,” Smalls recalled after the celebration. “She inspired me to go to Cal Poly Pomona and get my graduate degree in landscape architecture.”

Rollins’ efforts were cut short after she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, said her husband, Jerry Taylor, a Cal Poly Pomona professor of landscape architecture and of landscape ecology, who attended the opening ceremony.

Both the concert and the garden celebration “were such a beautiful way of remembering” Rollins, who died in 2010 and whose ashes are interred in the memorial garden on the church grounds, he said. “She would have been so pleased with the outcome of the garden. The beauty of it is still to come. People have to come and experience it.”

Mary Roberts, a botanist and a church member who helped galvanize the project, said she considers the garden a living tribute to Rollins and the community, and also to her parents and grandparents, who were Christ Church members. “There are family stories of my grandparents sipping a glass of sherry with the priest during Prohibition,” she said, chuckling. “That was when the church was located on Euclid Avenue. We’ve been at this site for 60 years.” Founded in 1886, Christ Church is one of the oldest churches in Ontario and among the oldest continuing congregations in the diocese.

“I’m excited,” Roberts added. “Imagine, we can start to grow food here for a food pantry; there are so many in need. It’s all a natural fit. We’ve made a place that will draw neighbors and that will nourish bodies and souls. This is also a way of revitalizing our church, a way of planting new seeds. A garden is a living place.”

Through the garden, the church is networking with other community gardens, as well as with the University of La Verne, to create student internships for an integrated spirituality and ecology curriculum, to nurture future growth of vegetables for local food pantries, and to support environmental activism.

Rebecca’s Garden at Christ Church, Ontario, framed by mountains, was dedicated on Nov. 6 in honor of the late Rebecca Rollins, former organist at the parish. Photo: Ashanti Smalls

A collaboration with the California Alliance for Community Composting will involve young people who will offer composting classes and canvass area residents to invite them to bring their food scraps to the campus compost pile, Gugliermetto said.

Olive trees may be adopted as memorials for $300 each, he said, adding, “When we work on the garden, we call the trees by those names.”

The space is also available for a host of activities, including dinner parties, classrooms, silent retreats, and workshops. As the congregation began envisioning the project, “we asked, what is the purpose of what we’re doing?” he recalled.

“We decided that we want to give a gift to ourselves, and to everybody, by opening this place, opening the doors as wide as we can and inviting people in, to just experience the divine, the holy mystery that grounds us all.”

Following the dedication, On the Rocks, a band specializing in 60’s and 70’s country, rock, ballads and blues, entertained the gathering.

For Smalls and others, the celebration felt very gratifying and long overdue. “I’ve been wanting this for a very long time,” he said.

Betty Randall, a vestry member and a garden docent, said she appreciated all the volunteers who toiled long hours in the sun to remove stubborn Bermuda grass from the lot. “It’s wonderful,” she said of the garden. “I can’t wait to start growing vegetables.”

The church is located at 1127 N. San Antonio Avenue in Ontario. Rebecca’s Garden is open weekdays, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a regular ENS contributor. She wrote this story for the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Episcopal News.