Sanctum Retreat House near Caroline provides an environment to restore one's spirit.

WCR PHOTOS | CHRIS MILLER

Sanctum Retreat House near Caroline provides an environment to restore one's spirit.

June 9, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Spring tune-ups, regular maintenance. We maintain a multitude of things. We also maintain our minds and bodies. Exercise, diet, lifelong learning. But what about our spirit?

Every now and then, Christians need a spiritual retreat, spent away from their everyday lives, for the purpose of reconnecting on a deeper level with God.

While most retreats of generations ago were run by religious orders, members of those orders are aging and their numbers declining.

In answer to that need, and also in answer to their own personal calling for a life of Christian service, Kristoph and Mariette Dobrowolski opened Sanctum Retreat, near Caroline, in 2004.

Now, 10 years after the centre opened, the couple are seeing the fruits of the struggle and labour they put into turning a dream into a reality.

Over the last 10 years, they have hosted more than 11,000 guests, averaging 25 guests per weekend, as well as many midweek and weeklong retreats.

"When people visit once, they come back again. We have a consistent clientele. There is something unique about Sanctum that keeps them coming back," said Mariette.

Launching Sanctum Retreat was not an easy decision for the couple, both lay Catholic theologians.

"Kristoph had to get the rezoning done, he had to find the money, and he had enormous tasks ahead of him when we started Sanctum. But his biggest task was me. I was the major obstacle," said Mariette, who was reluctant to take on such a huge endeavour.

Joshua, their son, was three years old when the project began. Mariette was concerned that he would not get their full attention if they took on this venture. As well, she knew they would be scrutinized in ways that a religious community would not. Further, there was a significant financial risk.

The obstacles, however, did not deter their response to the call.

Together they share gifts of spiritual direction, counselling, music, preaching and hospitality.

So with the generosity of many benefactors, art donations and the blessing of then-Archbishop Thomas Collins, they forged ahead.

Mariette said, "We need sacred spaces. We need quiet spaces. Sanctum responds to that need." In today's bustling, noisy society, places of retreat are needed more than ever.

Sanctum is a truly ecumenical ministry. It has hosted Christians from many churches. In fact, many visitors do not come for an explicitly Christian retreat. They might be businesspeople or work in education or health care.

Mariette explained that many people on retreat are going through a transition, perhaps hit with the question, "Now what?" Maybe they have lost a loved one, been diagnosed with cancer or lost their job.

TRANSITIONS

"Those kinds of transitions where we have to say 'goodbye' to something familiar and 'hello' to something new tends to be when people need a space to land in," she said.

Another aspect of their ministry includes support of those recovering from addiction to substances such as alcohol or drugs, gambling and work.

Regardless of a person's worldly success or accomplishments, everyone on retreat is valued for who they are, not in what they do.

"I don't ask people a lot about their background. It's important that I honour them as persons," said Mariette.

The retreat is situated on 100 acres of forested land, along the Raven River. When weary, people come to Sanctum to find rest. Guests can wander through the forest and meadows for solitude and refuge.

"What we hear consistently from people is gratitude for a space that is welcoming and safe, and where they can get away to rest, rejuvenate, refocus and go home with a clearer sense of their own vision. It is a very nurturing space," said Mariette.

Kristoph said. "In the chapel, the floor is made from the poplar wood from the trees on the property. Most everything has been made or donated for the chapel."

NATURAL MATERIALS

The altar was made by a local carpenter. The tabernacle was donated by Father Fred Monk of the Calgary Diocese. The solid oak doors to the chapel are from a convent in Moose Jaw, Sask. that was built in 1914. They were donated to Sanctum Retreat when the convent was demolished in 2004.

"With the ecclesial structure, we wanted to connote permanence, so we used all stone, wood and natural materials," said Kristoph.

Beyond the serenity and simplicity, there are luxuries to be found. This includes 40 guest rooms with private bathrooms, a solarium-lit dining hall, indoor fireplace lounge, bookstore and gift shop, outdoor spa and other special features. Stations of the Cross are set up through the forest.

"We excavated a pond. We moved 160,000 pounds of earth to build a big berm along the highway, and we shaped the pond in the shape of a fish. The fish is our motif," said Kristoph.

A major highlight is the conference room with its comfortable white leather recliners.

Nine people are on staff at Sanctum Retreat, including Father Abba Tewelde Paulous, a priest from Eritrea, now on sabbatical. He has been in Canada for five years, and served as pastor for the Eritrean community in Calgary for two years.