A gnarled piece of driftwood sat on the wooden communion table in the church’s sanctuary. Although the church was nearly empty during the hour before the Sunday morning service, the sounds of the choir practicing drifted into the sanctuary, where Shirley Spildie clipped chrysanthemums for an arrangement.
Some might say Spildie arranges flowers religiously.
For more than 30 years, she has faithfully made the floral arrangements on Sunday mornings for her church, the First Baptist Church in downtown Billings.
A few years ago, Spildie had surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and another round of chemotherapy for cervical cancer. She didn’t miss a Sunday at church and has been cancer free for a year and a half.
One Sunday, she woke up and realized the left side of her face was drooping from a small stroke.
“We went to the hospital instead of church,” she said. “I missed that Sunday.”
She does three flower arrangements for different spots in the church.
On a Sunday in mid-January, as the choir sang “This Little Light of Mine,” Spildie added a few long-stemmed Bells of Ireland to the hollow of the twisting driftwood arrangement.
“I just keep messing around with it until it feels OK,” she said.
But the offhand comment belies her expertise. A good deal of Spildie’s life has revolved around flowers.
“The church is just a small part of what she’s done in the garden club world,” said her friend, Mary McLane, who is also a member of the First Baptist Church.
Spildie is accredited as a national flower show school instructor through the National Garden Club, has taught flower arranging in numerous states, judged flower shows and was state chairman for flower show schools for 25 years. As a master gardener, she also volunteers to help teach children about gardening in an afterschool program.
It’s a passion she may have inherited.
Her grandmother planted what seemed like an acre of tulips. Her grandparents owned Wright’s Grocery, which sat across from North Park on Sixth Avenue North in Billings. In the store’s back room, her grandmother tended a poinsettia that had 50 to 75 blossoms. Her mother always had a garden and Spildie remembers the Victory Garden her mother planted during World War II.
But Spildie never formally studied gardening until her friend, Doris Clayton, also a member of First Baptist Church, invited her to join the Thumb R Green gardening club in 1972.
At church, she frequently “recycles” flowers, pulling leftover blooms from one arrangement to use in another. She favors asymmetrical designs and appreciates simplicity.
“If you’re doing three designs in 45 minutes, they have to be pretty simple,” she said.
She dislikes the thick, rounded look of traditional “mass” floral arrangements.
A used refrigerator in a workspace near a back door allows her to store leftover arrangements that families leave after funerals and other gatherings.
“The people don’t always realize they’re seeing the same flowers,” she said.
In January, her red roses lasted at least seven weeks.
“I pulled a few petals off today on a couple of them,” she said.
Part of her secret is in recutting the stems and sticking the flowers back in the refrigerator immediately after services. To prevent them from freezing, the fridge is kept on its lowest setting.
“I never know from week to week where my flowers are going to come from,” she said. “To me, it’s always a challenge to see what I can do with what’s available. I like to think I can do something with almost nothing.”
With some of her containers, she only needs three flowers to create a striking arrangement.
“She just uses what there is and turns it into something beautiful,” McLane said. “It’s her contribution to the church, adding beauty.”
Pastor Ross Lieuallen, at First Baptist Church, appreciates both Spildie’s creativity and her steadfast devotion to the task. Several other church members fill in when Spildie is out of town or unavailable.
She considers it a ministry, Lieuallen said.
“A real ministry to the Lord and to people to brighten up their day.”