By Ros Marsden
If you thought Mary Poppins and her finger-snapping solutions were just the fantasy of P L Travers and Walt Disney, think again. Our churches enjoy their own Poppins magic in the form of volunteers who create ‘flower ministries’ every week. Crosslight discovered that the artistic vase arrangements we see on Sundays are the work of dedicated church members and that it takes more than the snap of a finger to come up with the ideas.
Of course, the first thing our church flower arrangers will tell you is that “it’s nothing really, just a thing we love doing”. The modesty of this group of dedicated volunteers was a common theme for these interviews.
Another common theme was a concern about who to pass the secateurs to in the decades ahead. Helen Gilmour from Echuca Moama Uniting Church expressed the view of many when she said they would love younger volunteers as “it’s getting harder to carry vases down the stairs, for example”.
At High Street Uniting Church Frankston, Chris Johnson and Beryl Fithall try to encourage the enjoyment of flower ministry.
“One of the best things we did was organising a mini workshop to give hints on simple arrangements and flower preservation at our Evening Fellowship group. It did encourage others to join the roster,” Chris said.
Alison McNab, who organises eight volunteers at St John’s Essendon, explained they now use a local florist to do arrangements for weddings and funerals, and at various times of the year the group choose artificial flowers or pot plants. “This takes pressure off our volunteers, while still providing floral arrangements to enhance our worship space each week.”
There is a lot to consider when you arrange flowers in a public building. Some of the churches, like Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston, are very large so it’s important to consider proportion. Helen McLaughlin, co-ordinator of Pilgrim’s six-volunteer roster, advised to “focus on tall stems like gladioli. And because we also have dark walls, we choose light coloured flowers like whites, pinks, yellows and creams.” Warragul Uniting Church is another that needs “big arrangements because the church is big”, Merle Smith explained.
“I also keep in mind other aspects when I select flowers, like people who have allergies with wattle and pine being among the sneezing culprits,” Merle said.
Beth Stewart, a volunteer at Shepparton’s Wesley Uniting Church likes pedestal arrangements of suitable size which “look best in a traditional church”.
Sourcing flowers takes time, though the volunteers all seem blessed with generous friends and family, as well as using flowers from their own gardens.
Helen Gilmour is able to select beautiful greenery from local Echuca farmers and June Beckham, another volunteer from Shepparton’s Wesley Church, enthused about the generosity of neighbours telling her to “Come in and get whatever you want”. June’s own garden boasts roses, azaleas and camellias. Beth Stewart grows only foliage and flowers that cope with picking, arranging and lasting several days. Australian flora is a popular choice for Beryl Fithall, and she has used native flowers to match theological themes like the wreath she created for Frankston’s Advent season.
Artificial flowers (which Peggy Arnett from St Andrews in Alexandra calls the “back-up of emergency artificial flowers”) are cleverly used when time is pressed or fresh cuttings are sparse. Some churches keep permanent displays in cupboards that can be sourced at a moment’s notice. This has also helped when there are gaps in the roster.
Organisation is key for Helen McLaughlin if there are special requests, as flower orders to Tasmania from the mainland can take two weeks to arrive.
“It’s rare, but occasionally a bride will want a flower I can’t find in a Launceston garden,” Helen said.
Tools of the trade are important too. Shepparton’s Beth Stewart recommends keeping a variety of containers, ‘oasis’ foam, wire, adhesives, good secateurs and a spray bottle, as well as a helper to assist cleaning up snippings. “My (late) husband used to come and help and I was most grateful,” Beth said.
The volunteers feel they were born with a love of flowers. People who know Peggy Arnett say she was born with an artistic gift and that her vases are always “breathtaking and filled with colourful beauty”. Warragul’s Merle Smith says she has loved flowers since she was a child and Alison McNab learnt from her mother-in-law who was a beautiful florist.
“There is a certain amount of satisfaction when you stand back and look at your work,” Alison said.
For June Beckham it was her own daughter’s wedding in 1974 that catapulted her into the Shepparton flower roster because she created such an impressive display that she was asked to join the church roster.
A number of volunteers have studied flower arranging. Beth Stewart, from Shepparton Uniting Church, has judged flower shows and Leon Jay, the only man on the Echuca Moama church roster, brought his knowledge from running a gift shop to the role. At the Uniting Church in Benalla, the group are keen gardeners and see the arranging of church displays as an extension of their gardening talent.
Frankston’s Chris Johnson enjoys the quiet space and preparation time spent working inside the church, She believes flowers can be a visual aid to worship as well as a chance to enjoy the natural beauty of the many varieties. Her fellow volunteer Beryl Fithall likes the experience of working alongside others doing something that brings pleasure to all as well as providing a welcoming atmosphere.
Of course it’s not all plain sailing.
June Beckham recounted the moment when a large vase of flowers, perched on a pedestal near the communion table, toppled over and water and flowers spread everywhere. At Benalla, one volunteer was sitting in church on Sunday wondering why the emergency artificial arrangements weren’t on display. She suddenly realised that it was her turn on the roster! Merle Smith recalls arriving at church for Sunday service only to discover the cleaner had thrown the newly arranged flowers out the day before.
“We opened the doors and couldn’t believe it,” Merle laughed.
In 2014, disaster struck Frankston when a large brush-tail possum found his way through the roof on a Saturday night, falling from a height and knocking over the flower pedestal to quench his hunger and thirst. There were hilarious scenes half an hour before Sunday worship as minister Robert Johnston flew around the church in pursuit and headed the possum out the door. It immediately ran to shelter in the Anglican Church across the street.
Everyone has their favourite flowers. Val Stafford, at Benalla, loves native arrangements while Helen McLaughlin enjoys using hydrangeas, leucadendrons and roses (but watch out – our volunteers tell us roses can wilt easily).
Merle Smith favours New Zealand flax, proteas, goddess lily and strelitzia, and Alison McNab enjoys working with chrysanthemums, lilies, stocks and gypsophila. The Frankston congregation remember fondly the dedication of the late Fred Renouf, who grew dahlias for the church, even after he moved into a retirement village at the age of 96.
Liz Harrison, from Benalla Uniting Church, reiterated the sentiments of all volunteers when she talked about the special meaning of creating flowers for weddings and funerals of people she knew well. There is nothing the volunteers won’t do to ensure their church looks beautiful as Lorraine Wittingslow demonstrated when she brought exquisite roses from her own birthday bouquet as part of the arrangement for Benalla church the following Sunday.
As we researched this story, we received some information about Peggy Arnett from St Andrew’s Alexandra. It was headed “Peg of our hearts, we love you dearly”. This description of Peggy reflected what all the churches said about the people performing flower ministry.
To the flower volunteers across our synod, you are special though we know you will remonstrate, “Oh no, it’s just something we do”. Mary Poppins might add that you do it “in a most delightful way”.