MONCKS CORNER — Early morning vigils and daily prayers aren't the only offerings that make Mepkin Abbey a sacred space.
For many, the act of tending the abbey's lush gardens and neatly trimmed cemeteries make Mepkin a place of healing and peace.
One of 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States, Mepkin is well-known for its Roman Catholic monks who devote their lives to prayer, spiritual study, work and hospitality.
But they have help when it comes to maintaining about 400 acres of their 3,000-acre property. A diverse group of volunteers finds spiritual significance in what some may view only as garden work.
Because most of the monks' time dedicated to worship and other work, Mepkin's extensive gardens had gone mostly untended in past years. Overgrown brush covered cemeteries.
But Mepkin's natural beauty is what helps people connect with God, Mepkin leaders said. The land, a former plantation, sits on the edge of the Cooper River and its entrance is lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Its grounds include several gardens, including one designed by noted Charleston landscape architect Loutrel Briggs, as well as several cemeteries that hold family members with ties to the property.
The monastery started a volunteer gardening program in 2007 that today features about 20 people. Paid staff does most of the lawn care that requires heavy-duty equipment, but the volunteers, who all together put in about 6,000 hours a year, fertilize azaleas and camellias, pluck weeds, pick up Spanish moss, maintain the brick walls that enclose cemeteries, mow lawns and much more.
“I do believe the ground here being maintained that way offers that sense of serenity, that peacefulness," said Craig Clark, director of Gardens and Grounds. "It’s a place for the public to come and find that, which is hard to do in this world.”
The diverse group of volunteers includes college professors, retired school teachers, students and emergency room doctors, among others. Few have backgrounds in horticulture. Volunteers from all faiths are welcome.
They serve for different reasons. Some have family members in Mepkin's columbarium and want to help keep it clean. Others find solace in service.
Margaret Hagood, a professor at the College of Charleston, said volunteering at Mepkin is about giving back to a place that's given her peace.
She comes regularly to attend to the African American cemetery, a site containing those who are likely slave descendants, Mepkin leaders said. Pulling weeds near headstones, Hagood reflects on their history.
“I’m thinking about the people who are buried here," she says. "There’s a woman named Rosa. There’s a woman named Mariah. I contemplate their lives and their families. I pray for their descendants, and I think about what my responsibility is in the bigger picture.”
Hagood said the monastic lifestyle appeals to her because the life is one where individuals connect with the things around them.
“All of us can do that work," she said.
Mepkin is unique since most monasteries are largely closed to the public, spokeswoman Mary Jeffcoat said, and it's been challenging for the Mepkin monks to balance their quiet, meditative lifestyles with warm hospitality to the public. Over the years, Mepkin has installed signs to indicate the areas around the cloister that are closed to the public. Other signs ask guests to respect the monks' silence.
Volunteers have to be vigilant, too, recognizing that roaring John Deere vehicles can be disruptive during times dedicated to prayer.
While leaders recognize there's a built-in tension at the property, they desire to be hospitable, Father Joe Tedesco said.
He said that nature and faith are intertwined. Ultimately, volunteers are giving back to God. Tending to plants and pulling weeds are ministries, he said.
"We all have to participate in honoring God respecting creation," he said. "The garden volunteers are doing that firsthand.
"It really fits into the faith story dramatically. If you believe in God's action in our life, it's everything. We come from God and go back to God.”