A friend sent me an E-mail with photos and the story about the Billingraph Gardens located in Theodore, Alabama ( 65 acre garden estate is filled with beautiful flowers in a landscaped setting. The Bellingraph estate is a 10,500 square foot home built in 1935 by Walter and Bessie BellingraphBellingraph. The gardens were first opened in 1932.

I found the story behind the Garden’s even more interesting. Walter Bellingraph (1869-1955) and his brother purchased a franchise to sell Coca-Cola in Southern Alabama in 1903. It became one of the most successful in the United States and made them wealthy. In 1906 he married Bessie May Morse. (1878-1943) The couple had no children. The garden’s were Bessie May’s creation.

Her story is inspiring. She was one of nine children. She met Walter while working for the Mobile Coca Cola company and married him. During the depression she and Walter remained well off. She would hear of families in economic need. Her response would be to visit them and ask for a clip or BESSIEbloom she saw in the family yard telling the owner that she had been searching for that variety and had been unable to locate it. She would then pay the owner generous amounts for it at a time when $25 a week was considered a comfortable income. On one occasion she told a flower shop owner her Afghans were very special and paid her $100 each for a dozen knowing that this was the amount needed to put the woman’s niece in college. These blooms and plants would be added to the garden site. She also paid top dollar for “antiques” which people in need would offer to sell her who were in financial need. Her household staff remembers her always asking about their families and slipping them money for small tasks, usually adding “now not a word to anyone.”

Her husband found out about one of her acts of charity only after her sudden death in 1943 at age 64 years. A Catholic Bishop advised him that a group of nuns were praying for her as a way of saying thanks for all she had done for them. Since the Bellingraph’s were Presbyterians, Walter was surprised and asked what she had done for them. It turns out that she had arranged to send flowers to the Catholic Providence Infirmary every week with instructions to put fresh flowers in anyone’s room who did not get flowers from family ro friends. Her marker at Magnolia Cemetery bears this inscription:

I shall always think of you wandering through a lovely garden,
Like that which you fashioned with your own hands,
Where flowers never fade and no cold wind of sorrow
Blights our hopes and plans–And on your face,
The peace of one whose whole life through,
Walked with God. —- Your devoted husband.

Dorothy Day used to say: “The safety of the rich lies in alms giving.” The Bible makes it clear that being rich is not a sinful state, but the failure to help one’s neighbor when one has the means to do so is. Bessie’s story reminded me of the Bible quote: “But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (Matt 6:3) Bessie May Bellingraph is someone I would like to have known.

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