The new Southdown Institute is about one-third the size of the original facility Photo by Shai Gil.

Southdown has right-sized

  • September 13, 2014

After almost 50 years, the Southdown Institute has downsized for the better, says chief executive officer Dorothy Heiderscheit. 

North of Toronto and amidst a grove of white pine trees, Southdown has built a new haven for men and women religious with addictions and mental health issues. 

The opening of the new facility in the Town of East Gwillimbury, Ont., was officially celebrated on Sept. 6, but it has been fully operational since December 2013. The previous facility stood on more than 40 hectares in Aurora. But the new Southdown, at about one-third the size, offers “soothing nature,” comfort and privacy, said Heiderscheit. 

The chapel is the first room visitors see when they walk into Southdown. Stained glass windows from the old building now make up the south-facing wall of the new location. 

Montgomery and Sisam Architects, who designed Southdown, were acknowledged by the International Academy of Design and Health for their work on the mental health facility. 

“They (the architects and the committee) looked at a design that was warm and welcoming, a relaxing environment, an environment that allowed people to feel at home and to be able to do the inner work that they needed to do,” Heiderscheit said. 

Southdown has downsized from 55 beds to 22. Twenty of those beds are dedicated to short-term residents with the other two reserved for people coming in for a candidate or clinical assessment. 

“When we took a look at what was happening to our primary population — Catholic religious and clergy — that number is dwindling. And the facility we were on was being encroached upon by development, so we saw a need to move into a more secluded space,” said Heiderscheit. “I’ve been with the organization for five years, and what I notice dramatically is the community is closer together here,” which she attributes to the smaller space. 

Residents with mobility and physical issues will be able to more easily move around the new Southdown. It has four fully accessible bedrooms, two elevators, two floors and fewer staircases. The non-slip floors “keep the place looking warm and comfortable, but at the same time able to manage a significant population moving in and out,” said Heiderscheit. 

“Primarily we are Catholic with our residency, but we do also take other (Christian) denominations as well,” said Heiderscheit. 

Patients come from around the globe. While the in-patient population is composed of religious and clergy, there are no limitations on out-patients. 

Southdown also of fers candidate assessments for those considering priesthood or religious life. 

“It is an effective tool to assist vocation and formation directors as well as leadership of congregations and dioceses in learning about their candidates’ ability to minister, to live in community, and to relate in a meaningful way with others,” said Heiderscheit. “These assessments can also help the candidate in understanding themselves and assisting them in their ongoing personal growth.” 

In 1966, the institute opened its doors to priests suffering with alcoholism. In 1976, Southdown decided to also address the needs of women religious. 

“And probably right before that the founders found that there were dual diagnosis. Those who were coming for alcohol weren’t just coming for alcohol. There were other issues underneath. That’s the point where they moved into a broader perspective of treating more than just the alcoholism component,” said Heiderscheit. 

Today, Southdown deals with substance abuse, mood disorders, life transition issues, impulse control, gambling addiction and more, and offers a 14-week resident treatment program. 

“When the resident comes into the program, it is goal-focused, goal-oriented, and pretty intense for 14 weeks,” said Heiderscheit. When they return home, “we follow them for 18 months following their residency here to help sustain the growth that they have made while they were here and to consolidate that growth.” 

Looking towards the future, Heiderscheit wants Southdown to continue outreach that extends beyond residence and to develop ways to make their services accessible to people at a distance. 

“We really believe in the vision that we have of healthy leaders for a healthy Church,” she said. 

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