Francine Payer (right) dedicates the healing garden at First United and All Saints’ Westboro Anglican in Ottawa. (Photo: Patricia Stirbys)

Topics: UCC in Focus | Indigenous

Ottawa churches build serene space as part of reconciliation project

The healing garden is is intended as a place to contemplate and talk about residential schools

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It’s a place where people come to be still for a few moments and contemplate what reconciliation means to them. For a year now, members of First United and All Saints’ Westboro Anglican have gathered at a healing garden on their shared property in a busy Ottawa neighbourhood.

“I often see people sitting on the rock,” says Rev. Brian Cornelius of First United. Some have “made a spirit practice of when they go for a walk — they  go to the garden.”

This garden is part of the National Healing Forest initiative, which began when Indigenous leader Patricia Stirbys and settler geologist Peter Croal took a healing walk together in Ottawa after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report was released in 2015. They decided to encourage community groups to create “healing, spiritual, calming, and nurturing” spaces that “honour residential school victims, survivors, and their families, as well as murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and children who have been removed from their families and are now caught in the welfare system.” The churches’ garden is one of seven healing forests across the country so far.


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The idea to create a dedicated space began during All Saints’ Sunday school classes as children were learning about the different roles trees have in the world, both physically and symbolically. At the same time, First United had a book club exploring Indigenous writers. The two initiatives inspired participants from both congregations to act.

Together, the churches built a pathway and brought in a “Grandmother rock” weighing one tonne. A sign invites visitors to talk about or quietly contemplate residential schools. On a Sunday morning in October 2019, both congregations attended a dedication ceremony led by Anishinaabe Kwe elder Grandmother Francine Payer, who blessed the garden with smudging.

For First United, this garden “is a witness to ourselves and the community,” says Cornelius, as well as a space “to both receive wisdom from the Earth and to truly be living into right relations.”

This story first appeared in Broadview’s November 2020 issue with the title “Healing oasis.”

Glynis Ratcliffe is Broadview’s senior writer.


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