A Place of Respite – Chainsaw artist Brian Ackley works to “release” the image of St. Francis of Assisi from within the trunk of a dying tree, a beautiful sculpture that now stands as a focal point in the Canticle of the Creatures Meditation Garden behind Lourdes Wellness Center’s Little Portion, Collingswood.   Courtesy photo

A Place of Respite – Chainsaw artist Brian Ackley works to “release” the image of St. Francis of Assisi from within the trunk of a dying tree, a beautiful sculpture that now stands as a focal point in the Canticle of the Creatures Meditation Garden behind Lourdes Wellness Center’s Little Portion, Collingswood.   Courtesy photo

The Canticle of the Creatures Meditation Garden, located in the back of Lourdes Wellness Center’s Little Portion on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, is now home to a massive wood sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi thanks to the help of a local chainsaw artist who transformed what was left of the dying tree into a meaningful presence within the garden.

Inspired by the canticle gardens of Assisi, Italy, the meditation garden is considered by many to be a magical place, filled with the natural beauty of trees and sculptures to encourage relaxation, thoughtfulness and healing.

Since before the Little Portion’s inception in 1997, the huge tulip poplar tree stood tall within the confines of the property. When the meditation garden was built a few years later, the tree became somewhat of a cornerstone. When the decision was made to cut down the tree due to disease in the fall of 2010, visitors and admirers of the garden alike were deeply saddened by the loss.

“We knew that it was time to take the tree down,” said Mercy Sister Marianne Hieb. “As sad as we were, we reconciled with the idea that we would use the base of the tree to carry on its meaning and beauty.”

More than 15 feet of healthy trunk remained after the diseased parts of the tree were removed. It was decided that the tree would be carved into a visionary sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, as well as of animals and the environment.

Thanks to a grant from Catholic Health East, a multi-institutional Catholic health system in which Lourdes Health System  is a member, Sister Marianne’s hopes for the tree soon came to fruition.

Having always admired chainsaw art, Sister Marianne, an art therapist, began a year-long search to find the perfect artist to sculpt the tree. Her search ended when she interviewed Brian Ackley, owner of Ackmonster’s Chainsaw Art, L.L.C. in Bridgeton. Ackley is a third-generation chainsaw artist and has more than 14 years experience sculpting everything from animals to saints. After sharing her creative and spiritual vision for Saint Francis, Ackley began to chisel away starting with the head and working his way down.

“Brian is really exceptional,” says Sister Marianne. “He doesn’t sketch or come with a preconceived idea for the tree. He just finds the beauty in the tree and goes from there.” Ackley graciously accepted the compliment and recited the famous Michelangelo quote, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Ironically, while Ackley was sculpting the tree, he hit a knot in the wood near the heart area of the saint’s chest. Inside, he found a small heart shaped stone. Amazed at his find, he gave the stone to Sister Marianne as a symbolic token. She considered it to be an approving sign from above.

Over the course of two chainsaw-wielding days, Ackley delicately turned what was left of the dying tree into a true masterpiece. Once the sculpture was complete, a protective oil coating was applied to the wood to waterproof it and ensure its longevity.

Today, St. Francis stands grandly in the meditation garden, the sun on his face and his gentle eyes gazing toward the sky, welcoming all to experience the beauty of the garden. The creation of the sculpture in its place seems a fitting honor to the man whose “Canticle of the Creatures” prayer was the basis for the development of the meditation garden. 

“We want all who visit to feel that they are in a sacred place when they enter the garden,” said Sister Marianne. “The sculpture of St. Francis invites visitors to enjoy the beauty and spirit of the garden’s natural surroundings.”

There are future plans to incorporate the left over wood pieces into more meaningful sculptures, and the buzz is that an angel may be the perfect next addition. Ackley is already hired for the project.

Touched by the entire process, Sister Marianne proclaims, “What happened here was a beautiful transformation created out of a loss. It was truly an incredibly moving experience.”

 To view photos and information about the garden, visit the Lourdes Wellness Center website at www.lourdeswellnesscenter.org.