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San Damiano retreat center partners with master gardeners to create ‘sensory garden’

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When retreatants visit San Damiano Spiritual Life Center in White Post, they’re looking for a quiet place to “come away for a while” to reconnect with themselves and God in prayer. The center’s 150 acres of rolling hills south of Winchester, within view of the Blue Ridge, is a perfect place to soak up the silence and decompress.


At the heart of the retreat center is a large outdoor courtyard surrounded by the building’s windows. Tranquil green views of stone paths, patios and benches surrounded by plants beckon retreatants walking back from the chapel or reading in their rooms to come sit in the sun and enjoy the breeze.


The courtyard will soon become an even more inviting and contemplative space, thanks to a new project to create a healing “sensory garden,” with sights, sounds, scents and textures designed “to appeal to all five senses,” said Helen Lake, a certified horticultural therapist and master gardener from Winchester.


Lake and Lynn Hoffman of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners Association are helping coordinate the project, after being contacted last fall by Vanessa Lewis, hospitality coordinator at San Damiano. Deacon Mark Maines, the center’s director, asked Lewis for ideas to refresh the courtyard and she contacted the group, an educational outreach of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.


A sensory garden “can help you be more in the moment,” said Lake. “So many memories can be triggered through our five senses, and (gardens) can emphasize how important nature is to all of us.”


Hoffman, a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester, noted that the center has lots of land and three ponds to explore, but for people with mobility issues, limited time between retreat sessions or “who are afraid of bears or bugs,” the courtyard is much tamer and more accessible.


Classes on sensory and therapeutic gardens and landscape design have been offered for about 20 volunteers and staff. Now, teams are working on various segments of the garden, adding unique features in different corners, such as a small “rosary walk” with stepping stones to walk through the prayers while surrounded by Marian-inspired flowers. Other sections will include a shade garden and a kitchen garden with fragrant culinary herbs such as thyme, sage and lemon grass grouped in tall pots. New greenery will be added around the edges of the concrete fountain to draw retreatants with the sound of splashing water.


One of the overall goals is to soften the courtyard’s formal appearance, now characterized by square hedges and straight lines, and make the shapes rounder and more inviting. Throughout the space will be plants of different colors, sizes and growth habits, as well as varied aromas such as sweet gardenia and spicy herbs. There also will be touchable textures, such as the fuzzy lamb’s ear plant.


“We want people to walk in the grass and take their shoes off — it feels pretty darn nice on a summer day,” Lake said.


Lewis added, “I just know our retreatants will love it.”


Find out more


To sign up for a retreat, call the center at 540/868-9220. To volunteer, email Vanessa.Lewis@arlingtondiocese.org.


San Damiano Spiritual Life Center, purchased by the diocese in 2006, is supported by the annual Bishop’s Lenten Appeal.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021