Person of the Week
Kate Summerlin: Growing Flowers and Cultivating Spirituality
Kate Summerlin is organizing North Madison Congregational Church’s Goodness Grows: Garden Walks to Nurture the Soul on Saturday, June 12. (Photo courtesy of Kate Summerlin)
Kate Summerlin likes, and lives by, a quote from Cicero: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
The Guilford resident of 35 years has been a member of North Madison Congregational Church (NMCC) for about 20 years. She is currently co-chair of the deacons, who are the church’s spiritual leaders.
On Saturday, June 12, Kate will be heading the church’s Garden Walk and Plant Sale fundraiser. Attendees will walk seven gardens in Madison and Guilford, rain or shine, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can take a piece of the beauty home by buying plants sourced from local gardens at a plant sale in the church parking lot that day.
The garden walk is part of a larger idea born of the pandemic. NMCC was one of the first churches to close when COVID-19 hit the area in March of last year.
“The deacons got together to try to figure out ways to keep connected with our congregation since we couldn’t see each other,” Kate says. “We have a lot of gardeners in our community, and one of the ideas that came up in our brainstorming was that we would connect gardeners. We came up with a program called Tuesdays in the Garden, so every Tuesday from March through October we [featured] a different gardener. We ended up with 20 gardeners showcasing their garden in a 10- to 15-minute video and then we put it on our website.”
A few dozen views grew to a couple hundred each week and the idea continued to develop.
“We did all kinds of things,” Kate says. “We did tours of each other’s gardens, we did little garden segments like how to compost, how to prune a forsythia, what are invasive species, irises, growing strawberries and raspberries, taking care of your hydrangeas, and so we kept really, really connected through this little program Tuesdays in the Garden, and then a year later as we realized we were still in COVID, we decided that we would maybe do an in-person garden tour.
“So the Tuesdays in the Garden gave birth to this idea of a garden tour that we’re calling ‘Goodness Grows: Garden Walks to Nurture the Soul,’” she says.
The garden walks tie into part of NMCC’s mission statement, which includes “caring for all creation.”
Kate explains, “As we’re working on this project, we realized how people all over have connected with the outdoors and with nature [because of COVID]. It’s been a place for reflection and for solace and for spiritual growth, and so it seemed like a natural for us.”
Three of the gardens featured on the walk are in North Madison and four are in Guilford.
“It really ties together our community,” Kate says.
Planting the Seed
Kate and her husband, David, recently celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary. They have two children, Eliza and Luke. Eliza manages a farmer’s market in Seattle and Luke works on the business side of The New York Times.
Kate’s family is originally from Madison, where her mother still lives. Except for one sibling on the West Coast, Kate’s seven brothers and sisters live in Madison, Clinton, and Guilford.
“We’ve had a really, really charmed life right here between Madison and Guilford,” Kate says.
The Summerlins live in an old farmhouse next to Bishop’s Orchards.
“When we moved in, there was one tiny little garden here, and I really knew nothing about gardening,” she recalls. “That sort of planted the gardening seed in me, and I got so into gardening that I took a course and became a master gardener and just fell in love with it.”
Kate stayed home for a few years when her children were born, but decided she needed a job.
“Through volunteering in the Guilford school system in the library, I realized like a lightning bolt struck me that I was meant to be a librarian. I came home and I enrolled at Southern and I started my coursework for my masters in library science and my certification to teach.”
Ever resourceful, Kate funded her degree by selling flowers she grew in her garden at a roadside stand for four years.
(She jokes, “By the way, once I got the degree I got rid of the cutting beds and put in a pool.”)
After graduation, Kate worked for the Guilford Free Library for about a year when a job opened up at A.W. Cox Elementary School in Guilford for the school library media specialist. Kate held that position for 17 years.
Because she worked at a school, she had summers off, “which was perfect for a gardener, and the gardens have just grown since then very organically,” she says. “There’s never been a master plan. They’ve just kind of evolved over the years and it’s been a wonderful passion.”
Kate and David love to hike and bike.
“We dug our bikes out of the shed and got them spruced up and we’ve been doing the rail trails throughout Connecticut and Vermont,” Kate says.
David plays tennis a couple times a week and Kate reads “voraciously,” she says.
She also continues to volunteer with enthusiasm. Along with her work at NMCC, she volunteers with Saint Martin de Porres Academy in New Haven.
Kate says, “We just got a grant to automate their library collection, and I’m helping them get their books cataloged and into a new library system. Then we’ll work on a literacy program with them.”
For many years, Kate was a member of the Connecticut Storytelling Center housed at Connecticut College in New London.
“It promotes storytellers all over Connecticut and keeps the art of storytelling alive,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a storyteller, but I’m a story listener. Every storyteller needs somebody to listen to their stories, and so I’m their audience.”
She hasn’t written off being a storyteller just yet, though.
“I’ve been working on taking writing classes for the past four or five years,” she says.
Devoted to Service
Although Kate leads a full and interesting life, she wants to focus not on herself, but on NMCC.
“The church community at NMCC is such an incredibly unique group of people who are devoted to service and to serving the community,” she says. “We are an open and affirming church and so we welcome everybody and we’re trying really hard to be the best stewards we can be of the earth and of our community and of the people who live in our community.”
The church’s new minister, Rev. Dr. Heather Arcovitch, hails from St. Louis “and brings with her all the experience of the whole event with Michael Brown and the sensitivity to racial justice,” Kate says.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown Jr., 18, who was Black, was fatally shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the city of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The tragedy was one of the driving forces behind the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As a church we’re really, really committed to recognizing the intrinsic value of every single person and to be a force of change in the world,” Kate explains. “We’re involved with so many things: the Columbus House [a homeless shelter in New Haven]; we have a drive for Nicaragua, we have a prison ministry that we’re involved with, we try to provide for transgender youth who are homeless, and we really champion those organizations that are looking to serve the underserved. I think that’s the story of our church, and I think this garden walk kind of reflects who we are.”
Kate says they decided not to call it a garden “tour” because they didn’t want people to think “it would be, like, big showcase gardens that were maintained by professional gardeners, so that’s why we’re calling it ‘Goodness Grows: Garden Walks to Nurture the Soul.’ I know we have some spectacular gardens on our tour, but they’re all maintained by the homeowners and they’re all labors of love. They’re not trophy gardens, and there’s a big spiritual component to all of them.”
Anyone is welcome to walk the gardens. Tickets are $20 per person, with children younger than 10 entering free. Tickets can be bought through the church’s website, northmadisoncc.org (hover over Calendar/Events in the top menu bar and click on Garden Tour & Plant Sale), or in person at Breakwater Books, Madison Flower Shop, or Madison Earth Care. Proceeds fund the church’s social justice programs.