WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Sandy Prather will still run various retreats at the Star of the North.
For Sandy Prather being the director of the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert "is like running a small hotel, only with God at the centre."
Prather, after many years serving as executive director of the 61-bedroom retreat centre atop Mission Hill, is soon leaving to devote more time for family life. Her job – more like a ministry – allowed her to develop her gifts and talents to share the Good News.
"I really feel that I was called to do this," said Prather. "When I started, I didn't know if I would last six weeks or six years. Now it's been 21 years, it's been a great fit, and I love being here."
Now she has three competing areas in her life: her family, preaching and teaching, and administration of the retreat house. Spending more time with her grandchildren is a priority. She will still facilitate retreats.
In the process of getting her master of theology degree, she knew the Oblates through her studies at Newman Theological College. When the job at the retreat house in St. Albert became available, she applied, and was hired in August 1991.
She shared a story from one of the first retreats she hosted. Priests from the Edmonton Archdiocese were staying at the retreat centre. She went to one of the suites to switch a pillow and, pulling down the coverlet, saw the sheet. The pattern was pastel pink, with chubby cartoon elephant ballerinas. All of the priests' rooms had children's sheets on the beds.
White sheets were ordered the next day.
For most guests the retreat house is about sacred space. Journals are kept in five suites where guests have written messages about what a special place it has been for them.
It's a place for encountering God, and people have expressed in the journals how grateful they are to find such a blessed place.
"The place itself is witness to the fact that somebody believes in the holy enough to keep this kind of a space dedicated to encounter. We've tried to make it as peaceful and as beautiful and as welcoming as possible," said Prather.
Prior to Prather, a religious sister had been the executive director for about a year. She was the first non-Oblate in that role. To have a layperson in charge was unheard of.
"For me, one of the most profound things was the confidence that the Oblates put in a layperson, and specifically a laywoman. Twenty-one years ago, there were no other lay directors in the Oblate centres. Everyone wondered how it could be an Oblate centre with no Oblates on staff," said Prather.
Conscious of this fact, she strove to give the Star of the North an Oblate spirit. She asked around, inquiring with the Oblate priests how they could make it an Oblate centre.
Their principle mission is to proclaim Jesus to the most abandoned, helping forgotten youth and the poor. They started hosting a program called Sharing the Spirit, which was based on the Oblate charism. They also put up photos of the founder, the Oblate cross and other reminders of Oblate spirituality.
She has taken a 59-year-old building that was not well maintained and transformed it into a retreat house that is inclusive, welcoming and hospitable. The last pieces of the retreat house that needed upgrading were the kitchen and dining room. Renovations totalling $140,000 were completed recently.
"The Oblates love the centre the way it is, and are very appreciative of it. They have been positive of my role. To give a laywoman a leadership role, . . . I really think the Oblates empower laity," she said.
Through the support the Oblates have shown her, their admiration is evident. They have allowed her to preach, teach and oversee the retreat house.
Times have changed since Prather took over at Star of the North. Today, all retreat centres across the country are lay-led.
When she started, there was virtually no programming. Now there are many programs at the centre, most taking a holistic approach to spirituality, with journaling workshops, yoga classes, eco-spirituality, grace-filled grandmothering, and heart spa retreats for women.
"Our programming offers the Church in Edmonton and surrounding area some new possibilities for spirituality, a broader base than what your parish would normally do," said Prather.
She has seen a huge increase in use by members of other Christian churches. Anglican priests have been using the retreat centre since 1953. Baptists, Lutherans, United, Christian Reform and other Christian groups have retreats there. Coincidentally, Catholic use of the retreat centre has decreased.
"A lot is going on in Catholic parishes, and people have a lot of opportunity for faith formation," said Prather.
"The traditional parish retreat doesn't happen anymore. The bread and butter of the retreat houses were the weekend live-in retreats with parishes, and that simply doesn't exist anymore."
Now use is mostly ecumenical and there is more outreach to non-profit secular groups.
Star of the North is the host facility for the Alberta Motor Association's Impact program held for people who have lost their driver's licence due to impaired driving.
The Star hosts about 25 weekends per year, with 25 to 30 people each time. They are welcomed to the retreat centre and treated with dignity, perhaps giving them a new perspective on the Church.
"These are people you might say wouldn't normally walk into a retreat centre. The symbols we have here, the artwork, the two chapels, no TVs, no telephones, the whole atmosphere is different from what they would normally find in a hotel," said Prather.
Organizers have told her that the ambience of the retreat house is conducive to the kind of learning they want their participants to have.
In her honour, a 22-foot Sandy Prather Pavilion has been constructed in back of the centre.
With Prather's resignation, the board of directors for Star of the North will interview suitable candidates for her replacement.