In my sixteenth summer, I traveled with my parents to Victoria, B.C. to visit my brother. While there, we toured Butchart Gardens. Sadly, I felt unwell and spent half the tour resting in Dad’s truck. Nearly 50 years later, I still haven’t returned and I wish I’d felt well enough to appreciate the amazing beauty surrounding me. If you’ve visited, you know these magnificent gardens were once an ugly lime quarry. You may not know the woman responsible for this transformation started with no gardening experience.
In 1866, Jeanette Foster Kennedy was born in Toronto to Irish parents. Orphaned at 14, Jennie lived with an aunt in Owen Sound. She joined their family of seven children and enjoyed skating, horseback riding, and even hot air balloon rides. At Brantford Young Ladies’ College (one of the most prestigious schools in Canada at the time), her artistic talent earned her a scholarship to study in Paris. By this time, however, Jennie was in love. At 18, she forfeited Paris and married Robert P. Butchart.
On their honeymoon in 1884, the couple traveled to England where Robert obtained the cement recipe that would make him one of the first in Canada to produce Portland Cement. By1902, the Butcharts were ready to move to British Columbia with their two daughters. By horse-drawn buggy over a rough trail from Victoria, they traveled to their new home and factory on Tod Inlet. Soon, business boomed at the Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company. With her certificate in chemistry, Jennie worked in the plant’s laboratory.
Five years of extraction depleted the limestone quarry. Jennie had often told her husband, “You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement.”
Perhaps she should have recognized how the success of the cement precipitated the success of the next step. Determined to turn the ugly hole left behind into something beautiful, Jennie seconded quarry laborers to haul away rocks, debris, and rusting machinery parts. They brought in rich soil by horse and cart, and planted a row of Lombardy poplars to conceal the old cement factory. Over the next ten years, Jennie oversaw the development of the “Sunken Garden.” Breathtaking arrays of trees, shrubs, and rare flowers began to attract visitors and Jennie welcomed them with open arms.
By 1915, about 18,000 people toured Butchart Gardens annually. Still, Jennie refused to charge admission, often serving tea to her guests. In 1926, they added the Italian Garden, followed by the Rose Garden, the Star Pond, and the private garden. In 1931, the City of Victoria named Jennie Butchart “Best Citizen of the Year” for her contribution to what today we might call intense recycling. Over thirty years, Jennie added new plants, fountains, and sculptures from all over the world.
By the late 1930s, Jennie and Robert could no longer handle the work and turned the gardens over to their grandson, Ian Ross. Ross turned Butchart Gardens into a successful family business. Jennie died in 1950 at age 82. Her ashes were scattered in Tod Inlet.
In 1991, Canada Post released a Butchart Gardens commemorative stamp. In 2004, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Butchart Gardens a national historic site. Today, approximately one million people visit from all over the world each year.
This story reminds me of a song we sing at church called “Graves into Gardens.” Elevation Worship released the song, based on a story found in 2 Kings 13 and the premise that God brings dead dreams to life. When we declare resurrection power over everything we sow, nothing will be wasted. What we may see as an ugly, depleted quarry, God sees as a glorious garden. I hope I can return to Butchart Gardens someday. I hope you get to go, too.
Jennie Butchart, 1921. Photo by Harry Upperton Knight. City of Victoria Archives photo M00906