Nearly 40 people gathered on June 8 for the blessing and dedication of a new prayer garden at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington that is part of the historic cemetery’s ongoing effort to protect the environment.

“This is a mindful green space that connects people to nature,” said Lena Easton-Calabria, an urban conservationist working with The Nature Conservancy, who helped create the garden.

By providing a place for people to pause and reflect, she added, “they will feel more ownership over the space and are more likely to enjoy it.” She added that the project took about a year and one-half from concept to installation.

The garden is a collaboration between Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington; The Nature Conservancy, a national organization working on land and water conservation; and Nature Sacred. Based in Annapolis, Nature Sacred works with urban communities across the country to create public green spaces to reconnect people with nature in ways that foster reflection and strengthen communities.

The prayer garden is located near a memorial bronze plaque that was dedicated in 2018 to honor enslaved men and women who were buried in unmarked graves after the cemetery opened in 1858.

“This place will help us remember the many, many people who have no markers and people who had been enslaved in their lifetimes,” Cheryl Tyiska, manager of Mount Olivet Cemetery, said.

Michael R. Mazzuca, president and CEO of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, Inc., noting the location of the garden, said it was created “to respect our dead, including those in unmarked graves, and to be a place for people to pray.”

“This will be a place to sit and reflect,” he said. He added that there will be a “memory book” where visitors can write their reflections.

Gwen Wolfgang, the landscape designer who created the blueprint for the garden, explained the choice of plants included in the garden.

She said that the garden features yucca, a plant that was traditionally used to mark African-American graves; arborvitae, an evergreen tree that “provides structure and makes the prayer garden feel more like a room;”  red twig dogwood, which provides color in the winter; and nasella, an ornamental grass “that has great movement in the wind.”

“Everything (in the garden) has a season,” she explained, adding that in the fall, allium bulbs will be planted “for a fun color accent.”

Tom Stoner, co-founder of Nature Sacred, said the garden is “a dream come true.”

“This is a cemetery with an incredible history. The people who are buried here built this community,” he said. “But this (garden) is also about the future – our children, our grandchildren, the planet. We want to get people connected with nature, with themselves and with each other.”

He added that the bench situated in the center of the garden was made by incarcerated woodworkers using reclaimed wood taken from razed row houses in Baltimore.

Noting the new prayer garden was a team effort between The Nature Conservancy, Nature Sacred and Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, Tim Purinton, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s MD/DC Chapter, said, “these partnerships are helpful and show that together we can do so much more to protect our environment.”

Enjoying the new prayer garden at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington are, from left, Tom Stoner, co-founder of Nature Sacred; Lena Easton-Calabria, an urban conservationist with The Nature Conservancy; and Cheryl Tyiska, manager of the cemetery. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

This is the second major environmental project completed at Mount Olivet in as many years. Last year, a storm water retention garden was established at the cemetery.

In 2017, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority proposed a steep increase in the city’s Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC). CRIAC – popularly called a “rain tax” – is a fee tacked on to District water and sewer bills based on the area of impervious surface on a residential or non-residential property.

Mount Olivet, whose officials said the CRIAC increase would negatively impact the financial health of the cemetery, began working to mitigate its impact on the environment.

Last year, the Archdiocese of Washington partnered with The Nature Conservancy to create a natural infrastructure to reduce pollutants from water runoff in the cemetery.

The storm water retention garden at Mount Olivet replaced and retrofitted impervious surfaces with water­-retaining green infrastructures such as grass, flowerbeds, shrubs and trees. With that garden, rainfall that collects pollutants such as oil, sediment, or trash is prevented from flowing and draining into Hickey Run, one of the Anacostia River’s tributaries.

Mazzuca said the new prayer garden and the storm water retention garden “add a human component to what we do here and to connect people to nature.”

Because Mount Olivet is practically full and does not sell plots as much as it maintains the gravesites already there, Tyiska said, “this cemetery is in a setting-sun phase.”

“A cemetery that is not very active can become isolated, neglected and ignored,” she said. “We want people to come here. If we truly believe in the resurrection of the dead, then this is a positive space.”

Mount Olivet Cemetery, located in Northeast Washington, D.C., is named after the Mount of Olives, the hillside near Jerusalem from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The cemetery last year marked its 160th anniversary, and is the final resting place of several notable people, including James Hoban, the original architect of the White House; Mary Surratt, convicted in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln; Jan Karski, a Polish World War II resistance fighter and later professor at Georgetown University; and Joseph McKenna, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice.