The 11-acres of terra firma is called the St. Francis of Assisi Sculpture Garden that first started taking tangible form in 2009. Work continues today to make the pathway into a continuous loop as funds become available.
800 years later ...
Throughout its winding pathway are specially-created bronze statues of St. Francis that on average stand 13 inches high and weigh 25 pounds. So far, nine of the 24 statues have been installed. They depict Francis in prayer, meditation, preaching and interacting with nature, along with placards that explain the facets of his ministry some 800 years ago.
Commemoratives bricks line the pathway. A gazebo will one day be dedicated. Wooden benches are scattered throughout the trail for prayer or to simply sit and drink in the flora and fauna that envelops it. A windmill aerates a nearby pond.
Open to all
The Garden, as it is informally referred to, is open to people of all faiths or no expressed faith. Architect Bill Cox, whose firm helped design the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, designed the Garden.
Helping Carlson with the care and commission of new sculptures is Instruments of Hope, the nonprofit responsible for the planning, fundraising and upkeep of the 11-acre pathway.
While the land continues to be owned by the Dominican Sisters at Marywood, IOH has a contractual agreement with them for the care and continued growth of the Garden so the pathway.
Throughout the year, IOH, sponsors a Living Nativity, Blessing of the Animals, International Day of Peace and planting of commemorative flowers in conjunction with area hospices.
Carlson meets St. Francis
St. Francis was an Italian Catholic friar most widely known as the patron saint of animals and the environment who also, among other things, went to Egypt in 1219 and attempted to convert the Sultan as a means of ending the Crusades.
Francis founded the men's Order of Friars Minor, the women's Order of St. Claire, the Third Order of St. Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land. He is considered one of the most venerated religious figures in history.
Locally, the interesting aspect about the St. Francis Garden is Mic Carlson, a Grand Rapids sculptor who creates the commissioned statues.
Carlson is fond of saying St. Francis "kidnapped his heart" while on his first jaunt to Europe in 1995.
Until that year, Carlson never heard of St. Francis. The friend Carlson was traveling with had an uncle who lived in Italy who also was a Reformed minister.
"He had an English accent and looked like Obi Wan Kenobi in his 60s at that time," said Carlson.
"He asked me, 'So you're an artist. Have you heard of St. Francis of Assisi?'"
Carlson replied he hadn't and thus began a 40-minute trek to Assisi where the artist's imagination and a vision for the future started to take shape.
Much of that joy is because of the purpose Francis found in Christ, which is reflected in Carlson's bronze sculptures.
Then in 1999, Carlson and his wife, Susan Evangelista, returned to Italy and visited San Damiano, the church near Assisi, Italy that St. Francis had an encounter with Christ. It also houses a monastery and a small gallery of artwork depicting the saint's life At the time they were there, showed paintings that were "very dark of Francis."
"I'm sure they were true to life but I wanted to create a more joyful Francis," said Carlson. "That's when I got intrigued, that this guy was something. It's hard to explain. It intrigued me, that he was someone who wasn't from the 12th century because he seemed so relevant to me."
In 2004, Carlson became the first American sculptor to produce 16 statues of St. Francis for an exhibit at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. More than 30,000 people visited during the 29-day exhibit.
A relatable saint
Meanwhile, at the Garden in Grand Rapids, Carlson said he sees Francis as someone who is relatable in their relationship to God.
"At the Garden, I hope people find that peace within themselves and realize God is a lot closer.
"I don't want their visit to be a one-time thing," added Carlson. "They might notice the statues the first time and maybe the second, they'll read the stories. I would like it to be a pilgrimage for people around the world, a destination.
Praying without knowing it
"Even as I was working in them (the sculptures), I was losing consciousness of what I was doing. I was praying without knowing it, praying as I was working with my hands. Hopefully people will say they love the smiles. You don't see enough people of God with smiles."
"My hope is people take in the beauty (at the Garden)," said Evangelista. "I hope they see the birds, the bees, all of nature and feel that warmth envelop them."