Over a gravel road, under a sea of blue sky, and walled with white spruce, a wooden sign that reads Shalom greets wanderers, travelers, and visitors alike. As I neared the end of the road, a blissful awareness made its presence known. Passing through the gates, I noticed a pure, white statue of St. Francis of Assisi, being the first to greet visitors like me to the Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre and Friary in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, on the outskirts of Cochrane, Alberta.
Previously, the idea of visiting a Franciscan friary had never entered my mind. I had little understanding of the life of those who resided in such a place, and would not have been able to tell you the difference between a friar and a monk*. However, this was all about to change. I was here to spend a day and a half with Friar Dan Gurnick, OFM (“Order of Friars Minor”, the official title of the Franciscan order.)
As I stepped out of the vehicle that brought me to my destination, I noticed one thing immediately. Before I could take notice of the architecture of the place, parts of which are over one hundred years old, and before I recognized the sweet scent of pine trees and green leaves, the one quality that rushed to my senses was the echoing sound of silence. It was easy to feel the busy activities of everyday city life fade into serenity. Here, there is no rush hour. Here, there is only the day ahead—and what it has to offer.
I stood in the parking lot, with my red notebook and sharpened pencil. I was not sure what to expect. It only took a minute before a man in shorts and a t-shirt walked around the corner with his hand out, introducing himself as Friar Dan. With a silent handshake, and a smile on his face, I quickly understood that my time spent here would be as harmonious as the drive out from Calgary. Fr. Dan and I walked around the parking lot to the opposite side of the main building. There was an open meadow that stretched as far as the mountains, over hills and green pastures. It was hard to believe that somewhere in that direction rested the small town of Cochrane.
As we continued to walk over the moss-green grass, we came to a bronze statue where St. Francis is shown with his hand stretched forward toward what appeared to be a gentle wolf. Fr. Dan (who is both a friar and an ordained priest) informed me of the story told long ago that took place in the Umbrian city of Gubbio, Italy, of how a wolf terrorized the villagers until they were afraid to leave their homes. Fear had overcome the entire township until one day, St. Francis announced he would meet the wolf and make peace. Approaching the wild animal, St. Francis offered his hand to which the wolf submitted. What I found most interesting about this story are the words that St. Francis then spoke to the wolf: “As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger.”
Fr. Dan and I continued our walk, down a slope and to a small cemetery. There, he told me about some of the past friars that had resided at the friary. One, named Lucian Kemble, was an astronomer who stumbled across what he called, “a beautiful cascade of faint stars tumbling from the northwest down to the open cluster NGC 1502.” This discovery impressed astronomers worldwide, and was named Kemble’s Cascade in his honour.
Fr. Dan also informed me about the history of the Friary and Retreat Centre. The present site was originally owned by Mr. Charles Fisher, who purchased the land in 1907 and built the original sandstone house in 1908. Today, that house makes up an integral part of the retreat centre. Mr. Fisher’s family occupied the home until 1931, when it was sold to the McConachie family, and became the “Just Home Guest Ranch.” On March 10, 1949, the Franciscans purchased the property, in part. Mr. Clair J. Cote purchased the remaining land and very generously donated it to the Franciscans.
As we continued to walk past the enclosed areas set aside for daily prayer, Fr. Dan told me that it was time for the afternoon devotion. Though I tried my best to pay attention to everything Fr. Dan was telling me, it was difficult to keep my mind from wandering and taking notice of every detail of my surroundings.
As we entered the main building, I saw the pull rope to the bell tower. Above the rope read a sign, “This bell rings justice, freedom, peace.” It was fitting, as everything in and around the area seemed to ring the same words. Fr. Dan handed me a thick leather book as we took our first steps into the chapel. The Stations of the Cross hung on the wall—carved from wood fifty years ago. The two of us sat between the pews waiting for others to join. I thought, one by one, people would join, and within fifteen minutes, the chapel would be full. After only five minutes, I knew that would not be the case. Two more men joined, and Fr. Dan opened his Bible to begin. These three men were no stranger to Matthew 18:20; for where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.
I put my head down and kept my eyes on the words found in the open book resting in my palms. And as Fr. Dan began with a prayer, something strange happened. The faithful friar wearing shorts and t-shirt that I had met in the parking lot had left the building. He stood beside me, but he was not the same man. As the lights turned low, his voice lowered as well, and a presence, not felt before, made itself known. A prayer said in unison toward the cross that hung above the podium held personal virtue in the hearts of the ones reciting. It lasted only a short while, but I’m sure I will remember those moments for a lifetime.
After prayer we gathered around the dining table. The two friars that had joined in prayer now joined us for supper. Friar Michael told me of his past in Nigeria, and his travels. It became clear that all the friars did a lot of traveling, and there were many friaries all over Canada. For the most part, we spoke very little. There was to be a retreat the following day, and though I had no idea what to expect, I was sure that it would be something out of the ordinary – for me, at least.
The next morning was welcomed with a short devotion before breakfast, followed by two cups of coffee, two new visitors, and the promised retreatants arriving shortly. Many seem to come and go from the dining room table. Apart from other friars, there are cleaners and maintenance workers who made their way around, with friendly greetings.
Fr. Michael hummed hymns as he ran a cloth over the table. Fr. Dan told me about the retreatants—a group of students, graduating from St. Alphonsus Junior High School. Of course, my initial thought was rather sarcastic: “I am sure young kids will love a friary, away from their screens and video games.” However, my cynicism was soon proven to be ignorance. Fr. Dan and Fr. Michael put on their umber-brown robes with rope tied at the waist. Some traditions never perish, and this includes an attire that has outlived many centuries.
The kids from the retreat gathered in the main building to hear what the day would hold. They were handed booklets with songs as Fr. Dan wrapped an acoustic guitar around his shoulders. He led them out to the back, where he had shown me around the day before. They walked in the open meadow, singing songs, and admiring their surroundings. To my surprise, they seemed to be loving every minute. Many continued to sing after the songs had finished, while Fr. Dan broke them up into two groups. Fr. Michael took half and led them away, and the others continued to follow Fr. Dan. I couldn’t imagine what else was planned to keep such an energetic, young group entertained.
We sat in a circle as Fr. Dan explained the rules to a simple game involving empty ice cream buckets. It seemed trivial, but before I knew it, a drum circle developed, and it came as a surprise to see these youth having such fun in an environment away from the complicated distractions that normally consumed every spare moment. They played games, said prayers, told stories, and never seemed to have a dull minute. Breaks in between singalongs and games would have the kids laughing with one another and conversing about their personal experiences around the drum circle. Fr. Michael told me later that the breaks were most important—as it gave the youth a chance to reflect while chatting with their classmates. In the early afternoon the students from St. Alphonsus School were piling back onto their bus, sticking their heads out the windows and yelling, “Peace be with you!” to the friars. And it was back to the silence.
The rest of the afternoon drifted by. I took a walk, past the cemetery, and sat at the edge of the property with the mountains strung out before me as if placed there peacefully, one by one. The last twenty four hours had been so long, and I somehow seemed at home in this place. It was hard to believe that only one night had passed by. With the size of the property, one could walk all day and not see half of what there is to see. I remember Fr. Dan telling me a story the day before about a cougar that was spotted. Needless to say, I didn’t want to stay out long enough to experience the same thing. I didn’t realize how far I had walked. With such a landscape, it is easy to lose track of time, and wander, quite literally, with your head in the clouds.
The evening prayer took place, followed by dinner and light discussion. I heard news from a TV in another room, and realized this was the first time since I’d arrived here that the outside world had made an appearance. I got up from the table and followed Fr. Dan outside to the garden where he planned to spend the rest of this summer evening.
Digging up radishes, and moving a broken sprinkler around to ensure the large area received its own food for the day, we spoke more of what it was like to live in such a secluded place. As we stood by a pile of compost, I asked him the obvious question: what had made him leave his regular life to become a friar? He related that he had gone to school to be an architect, but that it hadn’t been what he had imagined. As we walked down the rows of potatoes, carrots and beets, he told me how he had hit a brick wall in his life and felt the desire to do something different. This made sense to me, as I am sure that everyone, at some point in life, feels just the same. He told me that before becoming a friar, he had wanted to build his own kingdom. Looking out over the garden and quiet foothills, he commented, “Now, as a friar, I work for God’s kingdom, serving the common good of humanity.” It all seemed to fit in place.
In a way Fr. Dan did, in fact, become an architect. He has built his life around something that has brought meaning not only to himself, but others around him. The kingdom had already been created, and he found himself a humble servant within its walls.
It was a fine way to end the experience. While counting the rows of vegetables, I was reminded of the story Fr. Dan had told me the day before, as we stood by the large bronze statue. Looking at the garden, many would be reminded of Matthew 6:25-27, which tells us not to worry about life, as God will always provide—but I was reminded of the wolf of Gubbio. Fr. Dan had come to St. Francis Friary, with a hand stretched forward, hearing those words, “As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger.” Fr. Dan had found his kingdom—and in this kingdom, a bell will be heard ringing justice, freedom, and peace.
*I found out that Monks live a cloistered contemplative life and vow to live in a monastery for all of their lives. Friars, on the other hand, may live in many different friaries and they serve in the community around them.
Visit the Mt. St. Francis Retreat Centre website, to find out more about upcoming events, programs and retreats.
Photos courtesy of Mt. St. Francis.