Is History Repeating Itself?

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 12 October 2005 0 Comments
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On July 13, 2005, this column ran a story entitled
"Phyllis' Garden." In that column I asked my readers to send
Phyllis Welder a letter or card to thank her for her part in
beautifying her surroundings by turning a tiny piece of
ground 18 inches by 36 inches underneath a street sign in
front of her house into a lovely garden for all to enjoy. It
was the major contribution of this 85 year old widow to the
community where she had spent all of her life. At last count
224 of you did that. The mail created quite a bit of
conversation in the village of Stoneleigh, where suddenly
this simple and unprepossessing woman received more mail each
day than anyone else in the village and sometimes more than
everyone else put together! I want to thank you for doing
that and these letters will reveal that your response brought
great joy to this lady and offered an opportunity for her
community to see greatness in the ordinary which was the
subject of the article. For those who might have missed this
column or for new subscribers who did not receive it you may
read it by going online to If you
do that it is not too late to send Phyllis a letter from you.
I would love to see the tally reach 300 letters. My thanks
to all of you for taking the time to do this little act of

John Shelby Spong


Many of us in Stoneleigh have been captivated by the
response that Phyllis has received following your essay:
"Phyllis Garden - Finding Meaning in the Ordinary" and
Phyllis has been persuaded to allow the story to be printed
in our local news magazine. I attach the short piece that I
have submitted for the October issue (below this letter).

For her part, Phyllis has experienced a number of
emotions: wonder, embarrassment, worry and sadness, for
example! She has asked me to tell you that she has bought a
card and will be writing to you soon (she says when the mail
stops coming!) but thought that an interim e-mail was a good
idea. Her emotions have been particularly stirred by the
recent awful hurricane Katrina because many of her letters
and cards have come from the deep south and it has made the
disaster seem very close to her. She prays for those who have
been affected.

With best wishes and thank you for such a lovely essay
following your chance encounter with Phyllis.

-- Robin Bussell

PS: As an aside, and more evidence of the smallness of the
world, one of the longer letters that Phyllis received was
from Rev. Wesley Hartley of Busselton, Western Australia.
Busselton is a small town which I believe to have been
founded by one of my ancestors!


It was a fine morning in June and Phyllis decided that she
really must make an effort and attend to 'her garden'. The
edges needed trimming, there were a couple of weeds to remove
and, of course, dead-heading is a daily task. She was
engrossed in her work when a passing gentleman and his wife
stopped and greetings were exchanged. Phyllis realised that
they were an American couple and, when she was asked where
they might find a coffee shop, she spontaneously replied:
"Oh, we don't have anything like that in Stoneleigh, but come
in and I will make you a cup of coffee". The offer was gently
declined (perhaps the strangers were reluctant to interrupt
the gardening) and the couple went on their way. Three weeks
later the elderly Americans returned and, this time, stopped
for quite a chat with Phyllis (and Phyllis loves to have a
chat!) Both the lady and gentleman were plainly interested in
Phyllis and her lifetime of experiences, and Phyllis enjoyed
their company.

Phyllis thought nothing more about the encounter until the
mail from faraway places began to arrive: first a letter,
then a couple of cards and then a flood of mail. Postcards,
letters and packages came from America, Australia, New
Zealand, Switzerland, Mexico and Canada. Everton the postman
has been quite overwhelmed! At the last count (14th
September) Phyllis had received 224 letters and cards.

The first to arrive was a letter from the visiting
American who thanked Phyllis for telling him her story.
Unbeknown to Phyllis he was a retired Anglican Bishop and he
now worked as a Christian columnist with a world-wide
audience for his internet articles of some 15,000 people. He
had used his chance meeting with Phyllis and 'her garden' as
the basis for a five page article entitled "Phyllis' Garden -
Finding Meaning in the Ordinary". He ended the article by
saying: "I invite my readers to affirm Phyllis by sending her
a card or a letter and thank her for her inspiration and her
"garden". And many of them have!

Now that Phyllis' garden has the eyes of the world upon it
she has to ensure that past standards are maintained but,
with joints becoming ever more creaky, she will need some
help. I am sure there will be plenty of that.

Oh! Did I not mention where the garden is? Just take a
look at the very small plot located beneath "The Green" road
sign outside the Almshouses. That is "Phyllis Weller's
Garden" and it has been there for many years. I hope you have
noticed and appreciated it as did the passing American

Notes: The visitor to Phyllis' Garden was Bishop John
Spong and his website is




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