In Portrait of a Lady, author Henry James said, “The years have touched her only to enrich her; the flower of her youth had not faded; it only hung more quietly on its stem.”
In 1955, Bishop Thomas Gorman of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas asked the Bethlemite Sisters of Panama to come to Dallas to establish a ministry at St. Joseph Residency. The Catholic Diocese purchased the property at 330 West Pembroke Avenue in Oak Cliff, where four Bethlemite Sisters with a mission to care for aging members of the community opened the facility’s doors to seven residents. Today, many more helping hands have gathered to better the lives of St. Joseph’s older adults.
One pair of those helping hands belongs to Michael Wolyn. He and many others have worked, or “played,” as he puts it, in the gardens of St. Joseph’s for three years.
As the lead gardener for the residency, Wolyn told The Dallas Express his purpose is to cultivate a place of beauty and peace for its residents and anyone else who comes to see the grounds’ scenery.
Wolyn got involved with the four-acre undertaking as a member of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal service order of Catholic men. While looking for a community service project, it was brought to their attention that the grounds at St. Joseph’s Residency needed some TLC.
Wolyn admits that the landscape of the elderly home “wasn’t much to look at,” with “mostly grass and few statues.” Nonetheless, in 2019 Wolyn and his team took up the challenge.
“Our thought was, if we could beautify the grounds, it would not only enhance the visual appeal of the entire facility but could potentially get some of the residents to come out of their rooms and into the garden,” explains Wolyn.
While not a landscaper by profession, Wolyn enjoyed gardening and had a bigger plan for transforming the resident grounds.
“By building [the garden] around a community of faith, we could expand the awareness of not only the mission, which is to reaffirm our relationship to [the] aging [population] but also [bond over the fact] that we are not all going to be young forever,” explains Wolyn in an interview.
Turning the grounds into a tranquil garden was not easy. Neither the historical mid-century architecture of the facility nor its leadership, the Bethlemite Sisters, allowed for the greenspace to feature bold designs or radical colors.
As a result, Wolyn and his team, including Dallas’ St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church members, decided to soften and functionalize the landscape. One goal for functionality was to include sitting areas so residents could spend more time outside with their visiting families.
It took the help of Eagle Scouts and a sponsor to complete a seating area, adding a space now used for family gatherings and, in the future, an outdoor kitchen.
“One of our big sponsors asked us if we would be amenable to doubling its size. Eventually, we designed a pergola, and three Eagle Scouts came in and built it. One Eagle did the railing, which is fairly complicated, another did the boxes, and then another did the pergola,” says Wolyn.
Completed a year later, the addition of chairs and separated seating areas proved to be incredibly useful in 2020, as COVID protocols called for social distancing.
Boy and Girl Scout troops have worked on many St. Joseph’s garden projects. While the boys build function into the area, Girl Scouts volunteer by creating and maintaining a shade garden on the property.
The garden projects serve a dual purpose for the volunteers: they learn important lessons about giving back to the community and allow them to collect the badges needed to advance within the troop. Many young adults who volunteer in the garden come away with more than they came with, and for Wolyn, it gives him a good feeling about future leaders.
“They leave here with a real sense of pride and respect for the work. It is one of the many pleasures I’ve had,” Wolyn says.
As he walks through the garden, Wolyn is careful to point out the chairs designed and built by Eagle Scouts and the roses in shades of red, pink, and yellow.
“This will be the first spring where we’ve planted the three gardens,” says Wolyn of the 2022 planting season. “I like to work in soft tones. I like to see the color and the variation of leaves and the way things flutter in the wind and all that good stuff,” says Wolyn.
The depth of his consideration goes as far as to include the type of plants and fencing needed to cover up air conditioning units. There is even detail given to the electrical boxes on the side of the building, painted brown to camouflage them and bring attention to the limelight hydrangeas standing against the wall.
When asked what motivates him about his work at St. Joseph, Wolyn says, “It’s a passion. I love landscaping. And I like to play with lines and color. So I’m a frustrated artist, I guess, but this is the biggest canvas I’ve had a chance to play with.”
Though Wolyn, a northern California native, has had outlandish home gardens, he has never had one as big and complicated as the gardens of St. Joseph’s Residence. While Wolyn walks around each corner of the gardens, it becomes apparent that being in the space brings out the vibrancy in the archetypal complex artist.
“I get to exercise a lot of my demons, and I get really creative,” says Wolyn. “I’ve built a lot of things in my lifetime, but I’ve never gone to the extreme. It’s a pleasure. It’s a lot of fun. To me, it’s a legacy. Just think, it will be here 35, 40 years. I won’t be, but it will.”
The memories will last a lifetime for many who work alongside Wolyn in the gardens. Thirty people on average work in the gardens each weekend, and since 2019, more than 900 volunteers have tended to the area.
Now joining them are residents who make their way out of their rooms to linger in the gardens and share in conversation. That involvement is something Wolyn has been looking forward to for a long time.
“I’ve wanted to have some residents work in the garden for almost three years now. But for whatever reason, they didn’t get the message. But lo and behold, just before we planted the last crops a few months ago, I had one of the new residents come to me (to ask about working with him in the garden),” says Wolyn. “It was glorious!”
Finally, Wolyn felt like all his hard work had paid off. Even better, she brought a friend with her. After a while, the word spread, and two more residents came out to work.
“It is just the little anecdotes, you know, you’ll be sitting in part of the garden, and you’ll hear one of the residents singing,” he says. “One of the reasons we plant so many things is to give them something to look at and walk right up on top of the flowers as they bloom. We probably got about ten to fifteen residents come out a day; it’s great. I love it.”
As the garden at St. Joseph’s residency continues to flourish, Wolyn hopes that someone will continue to care for the grounds long after he is gone.
“I keep reminding people that someday they will be in a place like this; they too will want to have something to look forward to,” says Wolyn.
Not only has the landscape given its neighbors something to look forward to each day, but it serves as a reminder to anyone who gazes upon it that while the seasons of life may change, there is beauty in each one.