Retreat centre offering tranquility in a time of need
By Jenn Watt
Published May 22, 2018
The Abbey Retreat Centre is shimmering with possibility on Wednesday afternoon, the day of its grand opening.
An hour before the event, the large home overlooking green forested hills and a wide pond already has half a dozen people inside, moving this way and that. They’re putting the finishing touches on the product of several large donations and grants and two years of effort.
“Welcome to the ARC!” says John Patterson, dressed in a suit, as an unexpected reporter arrives early.
Someone quips that perhaps if this is the ARC, John would be Noah.
The Abbey Retreat Centre, now open and operational, came first from the lived experiences of John and Thea Patterson, following John’s cancer diagnosis 10 years ago and subsequent treatment and recovery.
As Thea would later tell the large crowd that gathered to launch the retreat centre, it was their trip to another cancer retreat in Seattle that would inspire what has now come to pass.
“We had the most marvellous experience meeting other people, having conversations and just feeling the energy that comes from that kind of a group,” she said.
In its current form, the Abbey Retreat Centre offers retreats over four days, Thursday through Sunday, for people with cancer and their caregiver/primary supporter.
The space is fresh and clean, with modifications that take it from the home that it once was to a fully functioning space for between 10 to 12 participants. There are spacious bedrooms, comfortable gathering spaces, private counselling rooms and an expansive balcony. The home was once owned by Larry and Betty Hewitt and sits well past the other buildings on the Abbey Gardens property in a space that is quiet and private.
During the last year, organizers have been running pilot projects and in May hosted their first full retreat.
Retreat centre board chair Joy Davey said it was fulfilling to meet with the first participants in the program and see that the intentions of the centre were being realized.
“They would say, ‘this is such a peaceful place,’ which is exactly what we’d hoped would happen. It’s not only creating a retreat process, but it’s also having a whole environment that holds people and that allows them to relax. Allows them to let go of the things they’re worrying about,” she said.
Aside from creating a tranquil space, the retreat also provides tools to help participants lessen their stress, with activities such as meditation and yoga.
Davey is clear that ARC is a space of acceptance and is not ascribing to a specific medical course of treatment for anyone.
“It’s about … certainly affirming people’s choices because we’re not in a place to advise. That’s not our mandate at all. That would be way outside of what we’re charged with doing,” she said.
However, she said there is interest in studying the benefits of retreats for those with cancer and their caregivers.
The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine has had a close working relationship with Abbey Retreat Centre.
“They have a particular interest in doing the kinds of retreats that we’re doing,” Davey said, “but to have a whole research arm, because what they want to do is they want to be able to demonstrate scientifically that the retreat work is effective in helping people and in lowering levels of the main indicators, which are depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, nausea, isolation. Their hope is to be able to do a scientific evaluation of the retreat work and a follow up so that it can be published.”
Bob Bernhardt, president and CEO of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, attended the grand opening and confirmed the desire to better document what medical benefits could come from retreats specifically geared to those with cancer.
“Yes, there is research about many of these complementary therapies that are being employed, but there’s not enough research yet and it’s not disseminated enough. Many oncologists are quite unaware of what’s possible,” Bernhardt said.
Although there are many retreats throughout Canada, organizers know of only one other that is specifically designed to support people with cancer.
“There’s one that is a group in Vancouver and as far as we’ve been able to determine from the investigation we’ve done, that’s it for Canada,” Davey said.
It has taken plenty of effort, and money, to get the ARC to where it is now. It has its own independent board and leases its space from Abbey Gardens. It’s also been the recipient of large grants from Haliburton County Development Corporation, Rural Economic Development fund, Sick Kids Foundation, United Church of Canada and several private donations, including from the Pattersons.
There is no cost to those who attend the retreat, so it is essential that donations come in to support the work.
“One of the things that’s been really important for us from the beginning is that we be able to offer these experiences to people at no charge to participants. One of the realities for people who are living with cancer is that often they have a lot more expenses that they’re facing and it sometimes means that one of the breadwinners in the family can’t work any longer. So, we don’t want to not allow people to come because of financial reasons and we don’t want to put any additional financial stress on them. That’s the last thing they need at that point,” Davey said.
As the afternoon of the grand opening progresses, the building starts to fill. Waves of well wishers arrive and take tours of the space.
Fay Wilkinson of Visible Voices Open Arts Studio has set up an art station in the basement den, with wide windows overlooking the water. She and a few other women sit and make colourful creations with pastels.
The guests remark at the quality flooring, the muted hue of the bedspreads, the solidness of the furniture.
Upstairs, the food is being rolled out by Rhubarb restaurant and the main living room is bustling. MP Jamie Schmale joins a tour with Dysart et al Mayor Murray Fearrey. Schmale later tells the audience the space is “simply amazing.” Fearrey offers his congratulations and says he’s had a front-row seat to ARC’s progress, as his partner Donna McCallum is the executive director.
As visitors begin to tuck into their hors d’oeuvres, the sound of the gong rings out and everyone takes a seat or finds a space to stand and listen to the opening remarks.
Davey tells the group about the centre and why it’s important.
“We know that one in two people in Canada will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime,” Davey says.
“The impetus of Abbey Retreat Centre is we want to stand together. We must stand together in this.”