TO THE WOMEN and men who arrange flowers for church altars each week, it’s not just a task. It’s a gift, of their creative talents and of the beauty of God’s world.
“I think it is our gift, isn’t it, but at the same time it’s total pleasure,” said Linda Roeckelein, flower guild coordinator at Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. “I just think of the flowers as such a gift, I think it’s a privilege to work with them at any time in any space, really. Each one is so beautiful, it’s such a miracle to me. But when you come into a place like this, you’re in awe already, so I think there is more mystery when you do it here.”
For artist Daniel Bissler, decorating the church with real flowers is important.
“We don’t use silk or artificial,” said the altar guild member at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kula, Hawaii. “We’re blessed that we live in a place where we just have an abundance of all kinds of beautiful flowers. I just think it enhances the worship experience.”
Their very perishability can be a metaphor for life, he noted. “It adds a sense of celebration.”
“It just seems to represent the living soul to me,” Roeckelein said. “We get so much pleasure and peace from the beauty of nature, so that, if that isn’t part of our thankfulness, it’s a bleak place.”
Gives life to building
A flowerless cathedral would be like using canned music and prerecorded sermons, she said. “It’s the life of the building. It comes alive with these beautiful branches and flowers and sounds of music.”
Of course, creating that floral “life” takes work and practice.
Trinity Episcopal Church is a large New Orleans parish with a chapel as well, said Joyce Sims, flower committee chair. “As a rule, we need two arrangements weekly, and sometimes we put something in the narthex of the church. And, of course, for Easter and Christmas we put things everywhere.”
Newcomers can learn the craft in various ways. “We try to put new members with an experienced arranger,” Sims said. She also schedules periodic flower-arranging demonstrations. And her church sends arrangers to the annual flower seminar at the national cathedral. The weeklong program provides demonstrations and hands-on experience in arranging flowers for worship.
“I was especially interested in how they teach people and train people to do flowers here,” commented Nancy Bredbeck of Newport, R.I., who attended January’s seminar. “And anytime you go to a workshop like this, you take back new techniques.”
Gary Leonard, flower guild member at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., said he planned to try the technique he learned for making garlands using a chicken-wire mesh frame at Easter.
“Even if you’ve done flowers for years and years, you come and you just can’t believe how much more you can learn,” commented Linda Houston, flower committee chair at St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.
Basics help build confidence
Churches also hold their own seminars. Bissler conducted a flower-arranging workshop at St. John’s during its recent “art and spirit weekend.”
“There were several people who had the desire to do flowers on the altar but just didn’t feel like they had the confidence or the skill,” Bissler said. So he focused on basic mechanics, “just to help give some of the folks that do it a little bit of confidence.”
Different sanctuaries present different challenges and traditions.
At the national cathedral, arrangers work on a large scale. “If you’re looking at our high altar, it’s a tenth of a mile from the back of the cathedral from the west end, where you enter,” Roeckelein said.
The arrangers also strive for “movement” in their work, she said, “so that your eye will go from the floral arrangements maybe to an architectural detail or color in a window that’s nearby or some pattern that’s carved on the altar or [is] in the needlepoint. So we’re trying to be a part of the whole.”
In contrast, St. John’s is a small church.
“At Easter, we have crosses that we attach to the ends of the pews, which on Good Friday are covered with black,” said the rector, the Rev. Heather Mueller-Fitch. “And then on Easter morning at the vigil, when we do the offertory and the Easter proclamation, they have bouquets that they hang on these crosses while we’re singing Jesus Christ is Risen Today. They spend all Saturday putting it together. It’s just incredible how gorgeous it is.”
Sometimes all that beauty can be a tad dangerous. At Trinity last July 4, an acolyte accidentally set the altar flower arrangement afire while lighting a candle, Sims recounted. “Fortunately, his dad was sitting in the first pew watching,” and the fire was extinguished quickly, she said.
“It can be hectic at times, but it is just a wonderful way to meet people within our church and do something very fun and very spiritual,” said Nancy Allen at the national cathedral seminar in January. She’s a flower guild member at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., which Roeckelein nicknamed “the flower church” for its vibrant ministry.
“Even the people who aren’t involved notice the flowers and say how much it adds to the service,” Allen said. “It uplifts and gives joy to everyone.”