The very successful retreat house in Cranbrook is celebrating a 30th anniversary, Sisters Denise and Nina are the nuns responsible for day to day organization of programs and events and recently I the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with them and participants.

On arrival I began to photograph the garden when I looked up to meet the warm gaze of Sr. Nina. Putting arms around me in greeting she motioned towards the impressive sight of a large wood cross seemingly growing out of the ground among shrubs and flowers. Sister Denise, eyes twinkling also bestowed a warm hug.

Both are members of Congregation de Notre-Dame, an order whose members take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Nina has a background in chemistry, education, theology and spiritual direction training obtained from the Centre for Religious Development in Cambridge, MA. Training of spiritual directors, retreat giving and spiritual direction has been her focus for many years. She was co- founder of Centre for Spiritual growth in Ottawa until coming to Marywood ten years ago; she has a deep interest in dreamwork and outreach to those marginalized.

Denise’s background is in education, theology, spirituality and religious formation. She was a full time team member at Centre for Spiritual Growth in Ottawa offering spiritual direction, supervision and training of spiritual directors. She’s co- director of Marywood since 2006 offering spiritual direction in English and French.

Barbara Warman volunteered in 2001 and is now part- time in administration. We stand on the large patio where one can sit and gaze onto the mountains and forested landscape while Nina shows the salamander family that lives by the steps.

Inside the white building are seven bedrooms with private bath. Large windows allows views, artwork graces walls. Sr. Nina loves art, most of which has been produced by sisters or gifted; some are flea market finds of Nina’s. The tour continues with library, chapel and offices and a small statue of St Marguerite Bougeoys, the inspiration for Congregation of Notre Dame, then my friend Rita and I are guided to a large living room with comfortable seating. “Bishop Doyle built three retreat homes including this one”, says Nina. “The search for land began in the seventies, in 1980 three nuns of the Congregation Notre Dame, Marilyn, Ellen and Jo arrived to a rental House of Prayer in downtown Cranbrook. By 1982 the sisters moved to a third rental house, eagerly anticipating the opening of Marywood on the hillside property purchased”. Bishop Doyle blessed the house in November. “Volunteers too numerous to mention helped establish the house in and out,” say Nina and Denise.

The first eight day retreat was May 1983 with sisters Marilyn, Gertrude, Jo and Nancy. Since then Sisters Marion, Mary, Anne Marie have come and gone with Nancy staying 25 years. Each one contributed greatly to the advancement of Marywood, in 1995 an addition shifted Marywood from house of prayer to full retreat house. In 1996 Nina began an ecumenical outreach expanding the ministry to the College and St. Mary’s School. She spearheaded a new program for training of spiritual directors that she and Nancy offered in Cranbrook, Kelowna and Prince George. “There were four nuns in the beginning then three and now two, but added benefit is that more lay people are involved in giving of programs. Discussion evenings for men to explore issues and deepen sense of God, Seniors of Grace where elders can pray, connect and share life stories and faith and Prayer Shawl Ministry, 260 made for the ill, dying or just in need. These women are of all denominations, they knit at home and four times a year they gather to reflect on how this ministry affects them”. Retreats times vary, a day including reflection on God’s presence in lives, prayer and conversation. Evenings of exploring suffering and grief with Mary the mother of Jesus, healing encounters with Jesus in the Gospels, a growth series that looks at how one might approach problems with fresh eyes, identifying what is working in any given system and building on it to move towards a more positive future. Also guided retreats, a three day live in that combines silent reflection with meditation and Dream Work in order to listen deeply to the “voice of your soul”. Ongoing programs include First Nations Women’s group, personal or group spiritual direction, family programming, and four hour sessions with kids, grandparents and parents with scripture story, song, and prayer.

“Expenses are met through donations and generosity of those using our service, but financial difficulty shouldn’t prevent anyone from participating in Marywood.” Marywood welcomes all spiritual seekers; opportunity for sacred journey includes pastoral counselling, personal spiritual direction, days of prayer and renewal, retreats and workshops. “People who come can expect silence, solitude, meals and an hour long private session with a sister”.

Marywood is owned by the Diocese of Nelson, coordinated by the Sisters who welcome charitable donations and volunteer service. Tax receipts are issued for donations of ten dollars or more but again they stress financial difficulty shouldn’t prevent anyone from participating, all denominations have freedom to express their struggle with God, to be angry with God and not feel embarrassed about those feelings” says Sr. Nina. Mary joins us, born in Cranbrook, a teacher of nursing, opened three nursing schools, soft spoken; her cheeks flush as the sisters speak about her accomplishments. A tall blonde comes in and sits down. Colleen is here for her tenth year doing silent retreats, “I’ve been given permission to come and speak” she says. Another woman, Gena, petite, dark haired comes in. They’ve been invited to offer their perspective. Colleen says she’s not Catholic but her husband is, as a non- Catholic she was “excluded from many things in church, I didn’t know where I belonged, what’s important what’s not, searching takes place in a spiritual center, here I can make a bridge to Catholicism”. Gena says “we’re friends of Marywood; this is outreach to all churches and people who are searching spiritually”. Gena is Quaker, “I stumbled into mass; I thought this isn’t too bad, I sat in church, meditated and prayed, I understood the homily, it was a weekday mass, there wasn’t a flood of people, after it was over the priest stopped and spoke with me, I connected with the priest because he noticed”. “It’s the warmth that comes through people” Colleen comments. Mary says “I left when I was twenty two, I came backing in my sixties, I never knew Marywood existed, this is such a different experience, in youth it was ritual, memorized prayer, I never understood my faith until I came to Marywood. I never felt a real connection. But here you go deeper; you learn things about yourself in a loving, safe, compassionate way. I took a walk in silence out there (motioning towards the woods) I started to cry, I connected to myself, difficult to be quiet and be with myself, the quiet was almost scary.”

Denise says, “The difference in growing up teachings about God, retreat spent in silence, is reflective on solitude and then sharing”. Colleen remarks, “Joy had been released for Mary”. Mary asks, “Why does it make a difference? In church, gospels were remote; here it made God more approachable, church means more now”. Nina says, “I am so hope filled, when people take time to be with God, they become more loving, discover their gifts, never had someone not feel like they got a surprise, something precious that will sustain after, not only time heals, it’s choices you make that heal”. Colleen adds, “The rescued Chilean miner said that he had been with the devil and with God, and he reached out to God”. , Mary says, “People think a retreat is a holy thing”. Gina responds, “It’s a spiritual approach, looking for what’s working, have to have acceptance and cooperation”. Mary says “To me a retreat is being able to reflect on what God means in my life”. Rita has been sitting silent listening now she says, “I feel comfortable here, it’s peaceful, on a different level”. They all nod, Gena says, “here there’s no sense of control, it’s all about your spiritual journey, accepting and possibly pointing to another direction, Rita says, “It’s not control for me, it’s strength”.

Nina says, “My dad lived through the holocaust, we were seven kids, we had a strong mom, dad would make breakfast after we came home from church, he always said to his six girls, you can do anything”. A very tall man enters the room, introduced as George, a United Church minister working with lay leaders and clergy. He says “ we need a safe sacred space, this is it for me, I release my role here, I serve fifteen churches, Nina, Denise and Barb welcomed me here, I rest in this hospitality, I can be vulnerable, Nina is my spiritual director, I am safe, trusting, in that whoever you are there is no need to put on a mask, welcomed here as a child of God, starved in community, rediscovery, hungry for being ministered to, we all have gifts, specialized ministries but how to use them? Marywood is a way of honoring those God given gifts, special, doesn’t take away from parish life, it adds to it, resource for healthy parish life”.
Nina says, “We try not to be a burden to diocese, so donations, grants, fundraising, we wouldn’t exist without volunteers”.

The conversation returns to retreats, Colleen says, “men go into the bush or go fishing, is it really for that or is it to give them the time and space to reflect, to appreciate the family more. A silent retreat sounds barren but you have your own bathroom, bed, meals are good, read, listen to music, knit , draw, walk in the woods, not shut off, you’re not in a monastery prison. Silence is respect for someone else, focusing on self and your wants, helps to get clarity, see yourself, its not a scary thing, it’s a safe thing, Nina says, “even a short time is enough time to make something happen, an afternoon, 24 hours” . George interjects, “all there is to thinking is see what we weren’t noticing, seeing what’s noticeable, seeing what you don’t notice and open to God, in touch with what’s invisible, it’s a three fold movement, seeing, what is invisible, guide on retreat, reassured what’s normal, let things pass through and pay attention.”
Nina says” people do this differently; I do telephone spiritual direction too”. Gena, “a spiritual life is deep scared to own without an escort, Marywood is pivotal for me and it exposed a depth to Catholicism” Gena is the first person to be baptized here say the sisters. George says, “Come to Marywood to build trust, the link is palpable to our own journey, trust happens here in a sacred way”. A phone rings breaking the intense conversation between everyone.

Marywood is indeed a special place, from the deeply personal conversation you can see how positively it affects, how it sponsors spiritual thought to those that partake of its space and guidance by the sisters.

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