Rich history, natural beauty and the power of community in Northeast Alabama

After working with Nature Sacred for a year on a consulting basis, it is my honor and pleasure to officially join the team, as the new Programs Manager!  I am so thrilled to be part of this incredible organization, to support our Firesouls in stewarding their Sacred Places and enriching their communities.

And what a busy time to join! During my first week we hopped on a plane and traveled from Maryland to Alabama, the home of our partners at the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama and Firesouls from the Sacred Places they have fostered.

Just a few years ago, a book — Open Spaces Sacred Places — landed on the desk of Jennifer S. Maddox, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama (CFNEA). The timing couldn’t have been better.

At that point, the foundation was searching for a unique project: one that would both honor the 100 year legacy of the Stringfellow Health Fund namesake, and at the same time, fall within the scope of its funding parameters. Jennifer shared the book with Fred Smith, Director of Grants and Partnerships at CFNEA (who joined Nature Sacred’s Board in 2020); they agreed they had found what they were looking for.

Fred immediately got to work seeking out, connecting with, and continuing to support almost twenty new Firesouls throughout the charrette, design and build processes. Today, thanks to Fred and the CFNEA team along with the amazing Firesouls they supported, sixteen uniquely beautiful Sacred Places exist in Northeast Alabama — each a source of peace and light in their communities. Two more are in their final stages of development – all within the nine counties CFNEA serves.

In 2018, CPO Erin Robertson, Communications Strategist Angela Walseng, and Director of Special Projects Elizabeth Dandy traveled to Alabama to welcome this new group of green space stewards into the Nature Sacred Firesoul Network and to celebrate the efforts of Fred Smith and the CFNEA team. Our trip last month was a homecoming of sorts, the first time the full Nature Sacred team has been able to travel together since the beginning of the pandemic – and we are so glad we made the trip!

The Nature Sacred team along with a group of Alabama Firesouls, Jennifer Maddox and Fred Smith from CFNEA

From the small mountaintop town of Mentone to historic Talladega College, these southern Sacred Places bring the healing power of contemplative nature to communities served by CFNEA. In just three short days, the Nature Sacred team visited seven of these sites. We also had the honor of joining the Alabama Firesouls Affinity Group for some delicious southern food and very special presentation at the Mural Park at West Anniston Gateway in Anniston, AL.

Community members gather at the West Anniston Mural Park for a very special performance and presentation

The Mural Park is full of rich Civil Rights history, as this Sacred Place situates on the Civil Rights Trail. Thanks to the CFNEA team and West Anniston Gateway Firesoul, Steven Folks, we were treated to a performance by the local high school jazz band and chorus, followed by a presentation by local historian, educator and activist, Georgia Calhoun, a 91-year-old West Anniston native. 

This event was part of an effort by Fred and CFNEA to support their network Firesouls in bringing programming and events to these Sacred Places. Watch the inspiring recap of the event, featuring a voice-over by Fred. 

As we know at Nature Sacred, a steady stream of activities can produce amazing results in the community stewardship and maintenance of these sites. These programs also enhance community cohesion and encourage folks to utilize these green spaces for their own wellbeing. A reminder to all our Firesouls – funding and support are available through the Nature Sacred Firesoul Network’s Enrichment and Enhancement Grant Program!

Our Nature Sacred team is very grateful to each of the Firesouls we were able to connect with in Alabama. It was truly such a pleasure to witness the care you bring to your Sacred Places and communities. A very special thank you to Fred Smith and the entire CFNEA team for hosting us for this inspiring trip!

Each and every one of the Alabama sites is special in its own way, rich in its own history and reflective of the incredible communities that they serve. You can read a quick recap of our visits below and check out more Alabama Sacred Places in our sites directory!

Firesoul Randy Grider at the Dr. Stephen Brewer Sculpture Garden     

Firesoul, Randy Grider, hosted our group at the Dr. Stephen Brewer Sculpture Garden at the Mentone Cultural Arts Center in Mentone, AL. While this is one of the Network’s smallest Sacred Places, the Sculpture Garden perfectly captures the four design principles that make a Sacred Place: portal, path, destination and sense of surround. 

A rainbow appears over the Sacred Place at St. Josephs on the Mountain

St. Joseph’s on the Mountain Memorial Prayer Garden, also in Mentone, features an archway portal, sprawling walking paths with swinging benches, a gazebo structure, and the centerpoint — the labyrinth. Our team was even lucky enough to witness a gorgeous rainbow as it appeared, stretching across the sky and enhancing the ambience of the space. 

The Sacred Place at Ft. Payne Walking Park

Firesoul Connie Fuller welcomed us to the Life Garden at Fort Payne Walking Park, where red Japanese maples line the space. This Sacred Place is surrounded by a walking path spotted with outdoor exercise equipment, encouraging both mental and physical wellness outdoors.

Timeless Seasons in the Sun at Piedmont Healthcare Center

Timeless Seasons in the Sun, a Sacred Place on the campus of the Piedmont Healthcare Center is located just steps from the Alzheimer’s unit and was intentionally designed to be accessible for those with movement restrictions. Dr. Benjamin Ingram, Sandra Keener, and Trudy Lowe provided a tour of this site. Among other sensory features, two sundials represent the stages of life, so that visitors to the space may reflect on their own sunrises and sunsets, in whatever capacity is most meaningful.

The Sacred Place in Mural Park at the West Anniston Gateway

An awe-inspiring performance and presentation showcased the historical relevance of the Mural Park at West Anniston Gateway in Anniston, AL. The mural here represents the West Fifteenth Street Historic District—a once-thriving commercial and social center for African Americans during an era of deep segregation. This is the only CFNEA site that is located on the Anniston Civil Rights Trail. 

An inspiring group of the Talladega College community hosted our team for a tour of their Sacred Place, the historic DeForest Chapel, and the Dr. William R. Harvey Museum of Art – home of The Amistad Murals. Among them, Acting President Lisa Long, Acting VP of Student Affairs Anthony Jones, VP of Administration and Finance Alfred Norris, and Firesoul and VP for Institutional Advancement Dr. Kristie Kenney. Talladega, the first historically Black liberal arts college in the state of Alabama boasts a gorgeous Sacred Place, complete with a local greenery and a center fountain. If you travel there, try to time it during choir practice just inside the chapel, as the notes of melodic voices raise the spirit for those sitting on the bench. The garden is frequented by students and staff alike, looking for a contemplative space to just simply be.  

In Pell City, AL the Gateway Community Gardens couples community garden plots with a quiet and reflective space featuring the Nature Sacred bench. The goal of the garden is to provide food to the less fortunate in the Pell City area; however, it is clear that upon visiting this restorative garden, both the mind and body can be nourished.

Next time, we plan to visit the rest of the Sacred Places…so much inspiration, and not enough time.