The Manresa Story
by John E. O'Brien, s.j
Seventy Years in the life of the Lay Retreat Movement in Toronto
"A hill, a wood, a stream, a spacious house, flower gardens, fertile fields; add these together and you have Clarendon Wood. It seems almost unseemly to attempt to analyze the charm of this house and its surroundings." Thus in 1934 did Mary Agnes Pease begin an article in Canadian Homes and Gardens on what was to become Manresa Retreat House in Pickering, a centre of spirituality for men and women who wished to develop their relationship with God.
The property was named after Lord Hyde who in 1914 became the Sixth Earl of Clarendon. He and several relatives purchased the land around 1910 and built a beautiful mansion, carriage house, riding stables, servants' quarters and large dog kennel. With the outbreak of World War I the family returned to England. Lord Clarendon later became Governor General of South Africa and Lord Chamberlain to King George VI. Clarendon Wood changed hands twice before the Laymen's Retreat Association in the Toronto Archdiocese purchased it in 1949. At that time the property measured 107 acres and included Duffin's Creek where the salmon still fight their way upstream each fall and where a sharp eye and a light tread can still surprise deer in the woods.
But to begin at the beginning! The first laymen's retreat in Toronto was held Labour Day Weekend of 1925 at St. Augustine's Seminary. Senator Frank O'Connor was the organizer and thirteen men signed up. Jesuit Fathers John M. Filion and Joseph Fallon were the directors. Other retreats followed during holiday periods when space was available at St. Augustine's, atMartyrs' Shrine in Midland and at the Jesuit Seminary at 403 Wellington Street W. in downtown Toronto.
In 1940 one wing at 403 was converted so that retreats could be held also during the winter months. Ernie Morin, a retreatant of more than fifty years, remembers it well. Travelling by tram each day to work he became friends with the conductor. One day the latter said to him, "You're a mick, aren't you? Do you want to come with me to a communion breakfast next Sunday at the Jesuits?" Ernie went, liked what he saw, made a retreat in 1941, and by 1943 was a retreat captain, a member of the Sodality of Our Lady of the Way (later to become the Christian Life Community -- C. L. C.), and a dedicated and committed Apostle of Retreats for half a century. He was feted at Manresa in November on his 95th birthday, being named the First Honorary Member of the C.L.C.
By 1945 the number of retreatants was growing and the Laymen's Retreat Association under the direction of Fr. James Fleming, S.J. decided the time had come to establish a more permanent centre. A search ended with the purchase of a spacious home in Erindale where the first Canadian Manresa came into existence. The name is a favourite for Jesuit Retreat Centres worldwide. It recalls the ten months
St. Ignatius spent after his conversion in the caves of Manresa,a town in Northern Spain. Here in prayer and fasting he experienced what was to become known as his or the Thirty Day Retreat.
Manresa at Erindale opened in November 1946 with accommodations for eighteen retreatants. No sooner had they moved in than planning began for an extension. However the decision was taken instead to relocate to larger quarters. Three years later the final retreat was held at Erindale. Manresa in Pickering opened its doors several days later with nineteen men on retreat directed byFr. Joe Clarke, S.J. Donations for the weekend amounted to $198.00, an average of $10.42 per retreatant. Then, as now, there was no fixed fee, each retreatant making an offering according to his/her means. The shortfall was often considerable as for example this past year when it reached $32,000. Manresa has always had to seek outside financial assistance for retreatants, acknowledging that this is our way of making a commitment to the Church's preferential option for the poor and the marginalized.
A retreatant of those early days recalls how he remembers Manresa. "You had to share rooms. The beds were no good. The rooms were cold. The food was served to you in big bowls. The last person at the table usually walked away hungry. There was no kitchen where you could have a coffee or tea throughout the day or night. But the spiritual retreat was great. I guess that is why I continued to make this an annual must for myself."
Another retreatant picks up the theme of spirituality. "At first I did not grow much spiritually but over the years I gained new insights into the meaning of God in my life and it has been a slow up-hill climb...Thanks to all the priests, brothers and retreat captains for all the counselling and help through the years."
Manresa grew and prospered with additions to the buildings and a strengthened program, adding in 1958 retreats for members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), in 1965 its first retreat for women and in 1968 the first month-long Institute for the Spiritual Renewal for Religious. Retreats were offered for particular groups, v.g. Parishes, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Womens' League, lawyers, doctors, the police, the unemployed, youth groups, language and culture groups, etc. Many retreats reflected a mix of all these groups.
In the late sixties the fallout from Vatican II was being felt in every area of Catholic life. Retreats in the traditional sense began losing their popular appeal. The number of weekend retreatants at Manresa dropped to its lowest point in more than 20 years, levelling off at 680. A reversal set in and gradually the numbers began to climb, by 1980 reaching a total of 1837 and for this past year 2241.
Profile Of Retreatants
Why do men and women come to Manresa for either a weekend retreat or a privately directed retreat? What influences their decision to register? If you once accept the fact that the decision is really a graced moment in their lives, a number of elements come into play. By far the greatest number come on the recommendation of a friend who has had a good experience or through being invited personally by a captain or promoter. Then there are those who find their way to Manresa through advertising or through retreat brochures placed in the foyer of parish churches.
The Ignatian Weekend Retreat
Who are these retreatants? Men and women between the ages of 41-60 are the largest group and constitute about half the total each year. The remainder are almost equally divided between those 20 to 40 and those over 60. There is a further breakdown in a ratio of 3 to 2 for those registering for an Ignatian Retreat over a 12 Step Retreat.
The Ignatian Weekend Retreat is an adaptation of the Spiritual Exercises along the lines suggested by St. Ignatius in his 18th Annotation. "The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education and talent."
The weekend is first and foremost a school of prayer, the dominant form of prayer being an introduction to Ignatian contemplation. Four input sessions revolve around the theme of desiring, seeking and finding God in the reality of every day life. There is an opportunity for one on one consultation with staff members, a reconciliation service, a communal Way of the Cross which emphasizes the social dimensions of our faith, and a Eucharistic Celebration each day. A strong commitment runs like an electric current through all elements of the program -- a commitment to a faith that does justice. Retreatants are called to interior silence for the week-end -- a precious gift which many discover as gift only after they have experienced it for the first time.
The 12 Step Program
The 12 Step Program for members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and other addiction groups is a further adaptation along the lines suggested by St. Ignatius. The program is similar to that offered on a regular weekend with several exceptions: (1) This retreat tends to be ecumenical with many non-catholics in attendance, (2) The input sessions develop the spirituality of the Twelve Steps and (3) Silence in these retreats is for specified periods only rather than for the entire weekend. Here too appreciation grows among many retreatants as they experience the benefit of silence in the retreat and later in their lives!
Throughout the year, Manresa also offers individually directed retreats lasting 30 days, 8 days, 5 days or 3 days, depending on the availability of directors.
At the end of each weekend, retreatants are asked to comment on their experience. One wrote, "It gave me an opportunity to get in touch with my inner self. Very healing, beautiful, peaceful setting. Extremely restful. I also found the consultation sessions most helpful. The silence -- it was the best of any retreat I have been to."
Another commented, "It was a very amazing, spiritual weekend for me. I can't thank every one enough -- staff and volunteers -- for being here and making it possible for people like me to regroup myself and reconnect with God."
A third said, "I liked the, the time to be alone with my thoughts, the time to reflect without distraction, time to think, time to confess." And still another put it this way, "I liked everything -- the silence, reflection, scripture, meditation, the simplicity, the peaceful setting. I truly felt the presence of God."
And finally, "Healing of Memories and Reconciliation have left me speechless. It was a wonderful experience. The prayer and meditation and healing led me to confession. I had not been to confession in twenty-one years." Read letters from Retreatants.
Manresa's Secret Weapon
From the earliest days Manresa has had a small group of enthusiastic men and women dedicated to incorporating Ignatian Spirituality into their lives. They are now known as the Christian Life Community -- (C.L.C) and trace their roots to the Sodality of Our Lady of the Way founded by Fr. James Fleming. Committed to praying daily with scripture, to meeting once weekly for shared prayer and study, to celebrating the Eucharist together, they have chosen as their ministry the promotion of retreats. Each member becomes a captain or co-captain of at least one retreat. In a way, they are Manresa's secret weapon and an integral part of the Manresa Story.
Other groups also dedicated to Manresa have committed themselves over the years to financing major land purchases, to upgrading the facilities and to raising funds for projects. A retreat Captain, the late John Tanti, sponsored a Pasta Dinner yearly. After Fr. Fleming's death, a group of men with Tanti established a Memorial Fund in his memory, the interest yearly going toward Manresa's operations.
Making Things Happen
Following this tradition Mario Cinelli, a retreatant since 1972, offered to form a Development Committee in 1990 to work with Manresa's newly-appointed Director, Fr. John Egli O'Brien, S.J. Over the past five years the Committee has raised considerable funds, effected major improvements in the Main House and in the Retreat House, and has overseen the construction of the new St. Ignatius Chapel/Prayer Centre. During the current year the intention is to complete the job by dismantling the old chapel, replacing the old windows in Fleming Hall, installing new stairwells and fire exits, restoring the Eastern Wall of the Hall and repainting the exterior to blend in with the buildings in the complex. The work will begin as funding becomes available.
These changes in the past four years have been made possible by capital funding from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Women's League and more than 1200 retreatants and friends. Their names are being inscribed on the Memorial Wall leading to the St. Ignatius Chapel and they will be remembered daily in masses and prayers at the Retreat House for as long as Manresa continues to exist.
In addition to retreats, Manresa has developed a strong program in spirituality. Beginning in the 70's when the Retreat House evolved into the Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre, there have been days of recollection for priests, religious, seminarians, seniors, school staffs and other groups. There is an evening of spiritual renewal monthly, there is the Prayer Group which meets weekly.
Requests for ongoing spiritual direction are on the increase. Manresa also receives a steady stream of men and women in 12 Step Programs who are seeking help in doing their fourth Step: "made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" and their fifth: "admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." During the year many schools bus their students in for a one day mini-retreat. Reactions of the young men and women are always interesting and often quite unexpected. Recently one Grade 8 student summarized the day this way:
"I wasn't really looking forward to the retreat. I didn't know what to expect. I figured we would just pray and have quiet time all day, boring stuff. But now I'm really glad I had the chance to go because I really enjoyed it. It was different. They told us about experiences and different times and ways in our lives that we choose to commit ourselves to God. They taught us about faith and believing. I don't understand how they felt God's presence with them because I've never actually felt that, although I know God's with me all the time. IS IT TRUE? Yes, I feel that this is true and important for people to experience because they have the freedom to believe in God and once you commit to God, he'll never leave you. ARE YOU READY? I know I'm ready, because in a way I feel that I've already committed to God. I attend Mass every Sunday and pray and I believe God is always with me."
Another wrote, "I guess overall I felt one thing walking out of the building and that was `Wow'; I have never experienced anything like it. It made me feel clean, like I had made peace with a lot of complicated and confusing things. The mustard seed activity was the best cause I actually felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I felt like I knew God and that I was one of his children. And for a moment, I was glad to be Catholic, which was quite a new experience for me. I've always taken my religion for granted, but now I see how loving and caring God's light is."
In terms of Jesuit presence the list of Fathers and Brothers who have given retreats over the years or who have worked in administration reads like a Who's Who of the Order in Canada. At strategic moments major administrative decisions have been taken to give new life and direction to the ministry. The inclusion of laymen and women as retreat directors would be one such decision as also the participation of laity as staff counsellors.
A Fulfilling Ministry
A few lines from the pen of the late Fr. Bill McCarthy offer a glimpse of how fulfilling this ministry can be: "I am sure that the deepest of all satisfactions which Fr. Fleming felt was in the fact that he had made a valiant effort in his life to teach some forty thousand people how to pray. He spared no pains to provide for those people a proper setting for prayer." We could today add to this number thousands more retreatants from the past twenty years, all learning in the "school of prayer" to become better husbands and wives, better parents, better sons and daughters, better citizens, committed to "acting more justly in their lives, loving more tenderly and walking humbly with their God."