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Floral Design

Historic Preservation “Blooms” With Flowers

by Suzanne Bushnell, Director New England Region
October 12, 2020
comment 2 Comments

                                                HISTORIC PRESERVATION "BLOOMS" WITH FLOWERS


When you think of New England, an iconic image that comes to mind is of old, quaint, historic churches built with wooden steeples towering above colorful foliage in the Fall.  But what you don’t think of is a garden club deciding to rescue one of these historic beauties – the Union Church built in 1841 – after it was abandoned by its congregation some 30 years prior.  That’s exactly what happened 70 years ago along the rocky coast of Maine.      

Historic Union Church

                                       The Union Church exterior (photo by Suzanne Bushnell)

Back in 1950, the Harpswell Garden Club served the dual purpose of a garden club and as the small town’s preservation society.  The club had more than 300 members which is a remarkable number when you consider that the 1950 census of the town totaled 1,644 residents!  Today the population (year-round) is about 4,700.  Many of the garden club members then, as today, were from families with deep roots in this coastal town.  And preserving the town’s historic buildings is still a focus of the community.

When the club decided to take on the project of restoring the church to its original beauty, the club members (both women and men) worked alongside carpenters, used to working on wooden sailing ships, to restore what Mother Nature had tried to destroy.  Before the restoration, windows dating back to the 1800’s had been broken and a family of raccoons was found living in the choir loft.  Even the vaulted ceiling which held a massive gaslight candle chandelier was starting to collapse.  But through volunteer labor and donations from the community, the church was restored.  The question then became:  How do we continue to maintain the church when it has no congregation to support it?     

Historic Interior Union Church

                                        Interior of the Union Church (photo by Suzanne Bushnell)

The answer was to offer the church for weddings and the garden club would provide the wedding flowers – all home grown, picked from members’ gardens, and arranged by a group of talented women who loved weddings!

The original goal was to make enough money to take care of any needed repairs.  The church was made available for weddings or special events during the warmer months since there was no heat nor electricity in this historic building.  Another thought was to keep the cost of using the church, with the added benefit of wedding flowers, at a minimal cost so brides could afford a beautiful wedding without spending a fortune.


Flowers in the foyer

                                              Flowers in foyer of church (photo by Suzanne Bushnell)

Now, 70 years and counting, the Harpswell Garden Club continues to maintain the church, today on the National Register of Historic Places, and still with no congregation.  The Wedding Flower Committee spearheads the fundraising with its wedding flower arrangements.  Most weddings are held on a weekend from Memorial Day through September when the variety of flowers available from members’ gardens are incredible!  From lilacs and peonies in early spring to dahlias and lilies in early fall, the variety and color of flowers used in the arrangements are a feast for the eyes. 

Starting a week before the wedding, a call goes out by email to club members soliciting flowers.  If the bride is looking for specific colors, the Wedding Committee tries to find them.  But all brides are cautioned that “Mother Nature” may end up determining what your flowers will be on any given date.  A day or two before the wedding, members of the Wedding Committee will go out and cut the flowers or stop by homes where flowers are left for them.  Even whole neighborhoods have gotten in on the act and often flowers are donated by non-members!  Then, usually the day before the wedding, a group of six to ten ladies will congregate in the Wedding Committee Chairman’s massive garage and work their magic.  Everything from bouquets to corsages to massive altar arrangements are created.

Historic Bridal Bouquet

                                              Early fall bridal bouquet (photo by Suzanne Bushnell)

 Destination weddings in Maine are a big business and Harpswell – with its peninsula, three large islands and some 200 smaller ones – is a perfect backdrop for a memorable affair.  And while not all weddings today are held at the Union Church, the Wedding Committee will deliver finished arrangements to a variety of locations in the area.  Brides come from all over the country – many of them related to garden club members, or, from families who’ve spent generations summering in this beautiful fishing community.   Every bride puts their faith in the hands of these dedicated floral arrangers, that they will create the flowers of their dreams.  And dreams have come true now for more than 60 years thanks to the dedicated members of the Harpswell Garden Club’s Wedding Committee.  

Historic Design Committee

           Members of the Harpswell Garden Club Wedding Committee (photo by Lucie Ziemba)

Editor’s Note:  In 2015 the Club was honored for its historic preservation of the church with the awarding of the NGC’s May Duff Walters Achievement Award for Preservation of Beauty as the overall winner in this category.

Suzanne Bushnell, Director New England Region

Photography by Suzanne Bushnell and Lucie Ziemba



Harpswell Garden Club member

by Nancy Kinser on Thu, 10/15/2020 - 12:49

Congratulations to our wedding committee for your hard work in making the beautiful arrangements for weddings. Suzanne, this was a wonderful, informative article!

Member, Descanso Gardens, LaCanada-Flintridge, CA

by Carrie Lynne Draper on Mon, 10/19/2020 - 11:34

Thank you Suzanne for sharing this New England historical treasure with us and thank you Committee members for your dedication and talents. Truly love following the Harpswell Garden Club.

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