John Stogdell Stokes Jr., 87, an engineer and a onetime conscientious objector who after World War II experienced what he called "a lightning-bolt Catholic conversion," died Wednesday of congestive heart failure and pneumonia at Chestnut Hill Hospital. The longtime Chestnut Hill resident lived in Center City.

Although Mr. Stokes was raised a Quaker, he attended schools of different faiths: the predominantly Jewish Oak Lane Country Day School; Germantown Friends School; and Milton Academy in Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1938. He earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1942 from Lehigh University.

Mr. Stokes was the only son of J. Stogdell Stokes, a Philadelphia civic leader and owner of Stokes & Smith, a food-packaging-machinery firm in the Northeast. J. Stogdell Stokes was president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1937 to 1947.

Mr. Stokes lived a privileged childhood. At age 9, he learned to build model airplanes from balsa wood. By age 13, he was competing around the country and held a number of world records for indoor model airplanes.

The younger Mr. Stokes nurtured his own interest in religion. He was a member of Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Unitarian churches, and studied Muslim theology.

With World War II raging in Europe, Mr. Stokes registered as a conscientious objector in 1940.

He became employed by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. There he met his future wife and the mother of his five children, Helen Patricia Schriever.

In 1944, Mr. Stokes refused to serve in the military and was sent to a civilian public service camp in Germfask, Mich., where was assigned to reforestation and road maintenance projects. He deserted 10 days later. A judge sentenced him to 18 months in the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., on charges of desertion.

After being released from prison, Mr. Stokes experienced his conversion in the garden of his family home in 1946. His longtime interest in mysticism found a home in Catholic spirituality. He married in 1947 and moved to Chestnut Hill, where he lived until the marriage ended in 1972.

Mr. Stokes converted to Catholicism, developed a passion for medieval religious names and uses of flowers - especially those associated with the Virgin Mary - and incorporated them in gardening.

He read an article about a garden devoted to Mary that had been planted in 1932 at St. Joseph's Church in Woods Hole, Mass., and his interest was piqued. In 1951, he cofounded Mary's Gardens with a Philadelphia partner, Edward A.G. McTague.

Mr. Stokes spread the word through articles in Catholic publications, newsletters, and mail-order distribution of seed packets that promoted plants named in honor of Mary, such as marigolds and the Madonna lily.

"A primrose was Our Lady's Key, a balsam was Our Lady's Earring, pansies were Our Lady's Delight," said a daughter, Anne Stokes Hochberg. "Our backyard garden was magical. As a child in the 1950s, I helped him ship seed packets all over the world in response to requests."

In 1984, Mr. Stokes got a computer, eventually created a website:

» READ MORE: www.mgardens.org

and began to share his vast archives of flower photos and scholarly research. The site has fostered hundreds of thousands of inquiries and devotional gardens around the globe said daughter, Patricia Stephanie Stokes.

There are Mary's Gardens in the Knock Shrine in Ireland, the Church of Our Lady of Akita, Akita, Japan, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Stokes' archives will be donated to the Marian Library at the University of Dayton.

He and colleague Marion M. Metelits taught interfaith courses at churches and synagogues throughout the city beginning in the late 1960s. They also co-produced a Sunday morning religious television show,

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, on the Philadelphia CBS affiliate.

Mr. Stokes and Metelits were married in 1973, and lived in New Hope, Boston and Center City.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Stokes is survived by two sons, John and Thomas; another daughter, Mary Elizabeth Stokes; a stepson, Michael Metelits; five grandchildren; a sister; and his former wife.

Friends may call after 9 a.m. today at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 242 S. 20th St. A funeral service will follow at 10:30. Burial will be in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd.

Donations may be made to the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, Attention: Claire Jones.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

To read about Mary's Gardens go to www.mgardens.org.