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Holy Ground

The gardens at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo offer year-round beauty and peace in a public green space.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

When folks pass by Tupelo’s First Presbyterian Church, which majestically occupies space at the corners of Jefferson, Church and Green streets, if they pay attention, they’ll see a horticultural haven not soon forgotten.

The grounds, both holy and historical, have been lovingly planned, planted and maintained for several decades by Doyce Deas and Sam Pace (pictured at right), both members of First Presbyterian.

Deas is a Master Gardener who has left clear evidence of her green thumbs throughout the community. Pace, a retired physician, often brought back to Tupelo ideas gleaned from his travels that have become a reality on the church grounds.

On one trip, Pace brought home a vision for a columbarium, which now serves as a focal point of the Stuart Garden, named for the Rev. Thomas C. Stuart who was instrumental in starting the Presbyterian church in Mississippi and served as the first minister of the Tupelo church. Benches and a water feature make this corner of the garden a place of peace. It’s also a perfect place for a local yoga class that meets there.

Near the back edge of the green space is a conversation piece Pace has named Mr. Stumpy. A massive stump left from an oak tree felled in the Joyner area by the tornado of April 2014.

“The city was hauling it off and we asked for it,” Pace said. “They drove by, pushed it off and where it landed is where it stayed.”

Lush green ferns have been planted inside the cavities of this historic stump.

Deas and Pace are each quick to credit the other’s sweat equity in the gardens, whether it’s creating a plan or making the plan a reality. The two — she’s 76, he’s 71 — find joy in what they do for their church and community.

“You know, 99.9% of the people who pass are never coming in,” Deas said. “But they see the gardens and think of First Presbyterian. It’s how many people identify this church. It really is a ministry.”

The church and gardens have served through the years as backdrops for a plethora of photographs for engagements, weddings, proms and more.

The upkeep of the church grounds is constant, no matter the season.

“We are constantly adding and eliminating,” Deas said. “Two elm trees have died and we’ve lost some diseased dogwoods Sam planted in the ’80s. When that happens, you lose shade, which affects what’s planted nearby. It’s just a constant evolution.”

Deas changes out the annuals twice a year. And during special times of the church year, like Lent, Easter and Christmas, Deas coordinates colors with the appropriate season. She can name every plant or flower growing or planted with little thought, but no need to worry: If she’s not around, there are markers to let visitors know what’s what.

In the spring, tulips abound, as do daffodils and narcissus that bloom from 1,000 bulbs.

Deas and Pace find joy in their efforts and appreciation in the beauty of the green space surrounding a church they love.

“This green space has been good medicine for me,” Pace said. “God is good. This garden is all about that — celebrating God’s glory.”

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