The primary school children following Bishop Tom Williams around the streets of St Helens one Thursday morning in May looked anything but a ground-breaking band of pilgrims – but then appearances can be deceptive. The boys and girls from St John Vianney and St Austin's primary schools were actually helping to inaugurate a new pilgrimage route in Liverpool Archdiocese, the freshly opened Heath Marian Trail.
They were not the only children who walked the trail that day – two other local schools followed suit that afternoon – and 72 hours later, on Pentecost Sunday, other members of the Christian community from the Thatto Heath pastoral area followed their lead. A 60-strong group set off from St Austin's parish church to take their own first steps on this ecumenical pilgrimage trail, considered the first of its kind in the country. Indeed, those taking part on 24 May were invited to join "a pilgrimage celebrating Mary and honouring the women in our lives who do so much for us".
The Heath Marian Trail is a network of gardens designed in honour of Our Lady, two of them at local Catholic primary schools – St Austin's and St John Vianney – with a third at Nutgrove Methodist primary school. There are other gardens at the Perth Community centre and the Balmer Street and Nutgrove Methodist churches.
It was at St Austin's parish that the idea of building the trail was born, in a conversation between Maureen Wilkinson, a parishioner, and Deacon Kevin Duffy in January last year. Deacon Kevin was working on the Parish Power project under the auspices of the Justice and Peace Commission – an initiative focused on energy, food and well-being among parish communities. He had called a meeting at St Austin's and it soon became apparent that there was a will to establish something new.
"Father Martin Kershaw, the parish priest, was keen to create a project that reached out beyond the church walls into the wider community," says Deacon Kevin. "I was aware that the children attending St Austin's school next door wanted to create their own version of the Our Lady Grotto that they had seen in Father Martin's garden and so work began on creating what is now known as the Heath's Marian Trail."
Deacon Kevin marvels at the way those early conversations have sparked something so innovative. "It's been wonderful to see each group take part so enthusiastically in the creation of their gardens and mosaics. The Spirit has truly been at the heart of the project that has taken one woman's dream of a small garden, to a series of Marian gardens in both faith and secular locations. It was most pleasing when the separate groups came together initially at the blessing ceremony, then the schools' pilgrimage, before the whole community came together on Pentecost Sunday."
To realise the scheme, Deacon Kevin enlisted the help of Annie Merry from the Faiths4change partnership and a successful application for funding was made to the Westhill Endowment Trust. Over a series of workshops each group selected plants associated with Our Lady and planned how they would lay them out in their garden. In addition to choosing flowers they also pieced together mosaics designed by Bernadette Hughes, a Rainford-based artist.
The attributes of Our Lady represented on the mosaics include a dove expressing the hope for peace; a heart representing her love for us all; two hands joined together with a heart to signify friendship; a rainbow recalling God's Covenant with us to represent belief; and a butterfly which, as the sign of Methodist women in Britain, is a reminder of the transformation we undergo in our lives as Christians.
For the presbytery garden at St Austin's, Hughes created a design conceived by the Dorcus craft group which meets weekly in the parish centre. The trail also salutes the women who care for us in our own lives and there is a mosaic of Queen Vashti who appears in the book of Esther. In addition a local youth group have produced a mosaic symbolising hope and strength that will be placed in the Steve Prescott Foundation Garden that is currently under construction in St Helens in memory of the late, much-loved former rugby league player.
One of the St John Vianney pupils, Emily, gave a description of her school's garden: "The garden is all about our special lady, Mary, and the love that she gave to Jesus. We will love it and look after it so we will water it and care for it. My favourite part of making the garden was getting to plant the flowers and I got to plant Lady's Mantle. When we are doing it, we think about the special ladies in our life. We picked love for our mosaic because Mary showed lots of love to Jesus by caring for him."
Kristian Phoenix, a teacher at St John Vianney, added: "Back in November I was asked to be part of the Marian Heath Trail with my Year 4 class. We, of course, said yes and I am so glad we did. The process has been so worthwhile as the children and myself have learned so much from it about our Catholic faith while also touching on other faiths. There has been lots of time to reflect on who we are as people and how we can grow to be more like Mary, who was so loving and caring to others. The children were able to take time out to think about the special lady in their lives, such as their mum or grandma.
"The children have been part of something that will stay with them for a long time. They have been able to show pride in their work and have learned life skills along the way – namely, gardening, cooperating with others and understanding of faith. The children were very proud to have been presented with their very own statue of Mary, which has taken pride of place in our garden."
Over the course of developing the project, Deacon Kevin and his team also worked with other groups within the local community including the Thatto Heath Children's Centre's Grand Tots group; Addaction, a drug and alcohol charity; Mind, a mental health charity; the St Helens Hospital's mental health recovery team; and the St Helens volunteering project.
For St Austin's parishioners, their involvement forms part of the three-year Hub of Hope scheme – a Parish Power initiative between Fr Kershaw, his parish community and their two schools, which is facilitated by Deacon Kevin. "The wider aim," he explains, "is to provide opportunities for the faithful to express their faith in new ways, taking them beyond the traditional parish activities and having a positive impact on the wider community. This will bring them closer to their fellow Christians and hopefully begin to help people who have yet to encounter Christ to encounter him."
To achieve this aim, they are looking to find further funding but are grateful for the backing already received from the Westhill Endowment Trust and the St Helens council fund. Deacon Kevin is also thankful to the Passionists for the funding which enables him to devote his time to such community-building work – and, on a special trail around Thatto Heath, the fruits of this work are already quite evident.