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Catholics in Moab dedicate garden to Ruth, 'the Moabite'

Published May 15, 2009 6:00 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Joann Simbeck often rides her bicycle to St. Pius X Catholic Church and now has something new to look forward to -- time for reflection in Ruth's Garden next to the church, where she spends so much time as a music minister.

"I'd prefer to sit out here rather than the church," said Simbeck, eyeing the new pink mist, coriopsis and speedwell flowers in the garden, which was dedicated after Mass on Mother's Day. "This bridges the gap between the outside world and the sanctuary."

That's the hope of the Rev. Rick Sherman, who sprinkled holy water on the small garden's shrubs, benches, flowers, fountain and wall as parishioners and visitors looked on Sunday.

The garden, he said, could become a place of healing for members of this small parish as well as reconciliation for those estranged from the church.

Eventually, one corner will be planted with healing herbs such as hyssop and lavender.

Sherman, who has been pastor at St. Pius X for five years, envisions the garden drawing residents and visitors seeking peace and solace, whether or not they feel comfortable entering the church.

While Moab is Utah's recreational playground, it is also the state's least religious community and a place where many residents feel like permanent outsiders, 230 miles from the capital city.

On any given Sunday, half the people in church are just passing through.

"We live in the land of the outsider," Sherman said. "This is where you go to check out."

Part of the parish's role in the community, he said, is to go beyond the doctrines and rituals to show love. Nature, such as the garden, can open doors, he said. "It's relationships that draw people in -- or push them out."

So why Ruth? Because the garden has at least two roots.

Parishioners had long wanted to landscape the area between the church and Sister Helena Hall, the parish social hall. A little over a year ago, they proposed a garden, said Carolyn King.

Sherman liked the idea, which he, too, had been contemplating after seeing centuries-old churches in New Mexico with gardens during a confirmation pilgrimage with teenagers.

But the priest had another idea as well: Why shouldn't the Moab parish honor Ruth, the Moabite of Old Testament fame?

He'd always been a bit perplexed by a question posed each time he saw the late Rev. Bill Flegge, who once was pastor in Moab: "How's Ruth doin'?" he'd ask. "How's Ruth doin'?"

"Ruth was not a big part of my theology," Sherman said with a laugh. "But I thought there ought to be some Ruthiness here."

The more Sherman learned about Ruth, the more he realized she is a perfect patron saint for the Moab parish.

Ruth, out of devotion to her mother-in-law, left her own people in Moab and built a life among the Israelites.

She was the consummate outsider, unlikely to play a role in salvation history. Nonetheless, she was the great-grandmother of King David and thus an ancestor of Mary, Jesus Christ's mother.

"God is always calling the least likely," Sherman said.

For the parish, which has 80 families at the most, building the garden was as much about building a community.

They installed the wall, pavers and stamped concrete walkways last summer. The plain wooden cross in the corner came off the front of the church, said King.

Ed McElhaney, a transplant from Phoenix, found a slab of sandstone with what looks like Moab's skyline, and the group had it etched with the image of Ruth, taken from a painting by Sherman's sister. The sandstone, mounted on concrete, will be at the entrance to Ruth's Garden.

The stone fountain came from the home of longtime parishioners and gardeners Fred and Betty Baker, who both died in the past year.

King, a real-estate agent, retrieved the fountain when the buyers of the Baker home told her they planned to get rid of it.

The project, said King, "just evolved.

"We're a very small parish and when we work together, we accomplish a lot."

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Who was Ruth of Moab?

She lived around 1300 B.C. in a region of what is now central Jordan, then called Moab. She married into a family from Bethlehem who had migrated to Moab to escape starvation, and then returned with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem after the deaths of their husbands.

Ruth was an outsider there and gleaned wheat from the fields for food. She gained the attention of an influential landowner, Boaz, and they married. Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, king of Israel, and thus one of only five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Ruth 1:16-17:

Ruth, the Moabite, said to her mother-in-law, Naomi, "Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you will lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there be buried."