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Secret garden revealed

“And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades …”

Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote these words in 1909 in her children’s classic, “The Secret Garden,” to describe the return to life of a brick-walled garden which had been locked up.

All gardens have the power to soothe pain, lift spirits, restore hope and health, and satisfy a universal human longing for nature’s beauty, peace and quiet. And most gardens, even those that are forlorn, untended and forgotten, can be brought back to life with care and attention.



Grass Valley has such a secret garden at St. Joseph’s Cultural Center, first planted and lovingly tended by the nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent and Holy Angels Orphanage, as the facility was known when it opened its doors in 1866.

The nuns enjoyed the garden as their private retreat.




In 1932, the orphanage was closed, and in 1968 the facility was de-sanctified by the Catholic Church (although still owned by the Sisters of Mercy) and was offered to the community.

Grass Valley’s Historic Preservation Committee formed in 1969 to administer the property. Under the able leadership of its first president, Florence Hosbein, members raised funds to repair and preserve the buildings and garden.

The primary fundraiser became the annual Twelfth Night celebration at St. Joseph’s Chapel. This event and others raised money for a heating system, structural repairs and bathrooms.

In 1983, the Historic Preservation Committee signed a two-year lease with Music in the Mountains (MIM), which used the center for performances by their various choral groups and for their summer classical music festival.

At that time, the interior and exterior of St. Joseph’s were scrubbed, and additional lighting was installed.

In the garden, the fountain was repaired and the plantings pruned and fertilized. Volunteers William and Eileen Cain undertook day-to-day maintenance of the garden and acted as docents for the Grass Valley Museum.

In 1987, MIM moved its major concerts to the larger Don Baggett Auditorium at Nevada Union High School, but continued to rent St. Joseph’s for smaller concerts until 1999, when the fire marshal closed down the balcony.

Since 1999, the Historic Preservation Committee has worked diligently to keep the facility viable, although garden maintenance and rejuvenation, in the competition for limited resources, has taken a back seat to essential structural repairs.

Like the garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale, Grass Valley’s “secret garden” has been locked up and largely forgotten since 1999.

Enter Joy Feller, a local master gardener who was married in St. Joseph’s Chapel in 1981.

A year ago Feller made it her mission to return the garden to its former glory. She has researched the garden’s past and plans to gradually restore its plantings to a mix the nuns would have cultivated in the late 1800s.

Feller works at the garden on Monday and Wednesday mornings and she welcomes volunteers.

For the heavier work, Trees Unlimited has donated specialized equipment and a crew of nine to trim the overgrown cedars and palms. Waste Management provided a 20-foot dumpster to haul away debris. The county’s work release program has provided much-needed muscle.

More than 350 hours have been devoted to the restoration.

Feller’s dream is that Grass Valley’s “secret garden” will once again become a place of sanctuary and renewal, where locals come to admire and research the roses, sit on a bench with a favorite novel, or enjoy a quiet respite from a busy day.

n It’s located at the corner of South Church and Chapel streets in downtown Grass Valley.

n Open 9 a.m. to noon every Monday and Wednesday.

n The garden is a no-smoking, no-dogs area, and it is not a children’s playground.

n If you are interested in volunteering, call 272-4725, leave a name and telephone number, and the master gardener will return your call.

n Private events may be scheduled by calling 272-4725.

– Patricia L. Minch


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