St. Bernadette’s Family Resource Centre has begun welcoming back its community members. Photo courtesy Angie Carboni

Retreat centres acclimatize to new normal

  • September 17, 2020

Through prayers and dreams, Angie Carboni has counted on God to help her navigate through the six months since COVID-19 emerged in Canada.

The executive director and founder of the St. Bernadette’s Family Resource Centre in Toronto — a non-profit and non-denominational organization for children, youth and adults with developmental and/or physical challenges — was stirred by the Lord to make a difficult decision in the middle of March.

“I closed because I was shown through prayer that the right decision was to close, and I kept on praying through all this time,” said Carboni.

“I then had a dream of everyone coming back, and that told me it was safe.”

Carboni re-opened St. Bernadette’s doors — an event hall at D’Arcy McGee Catholic School — on Sept. 8, the birthday of Mary, the Mother of God. Choosing this date was intentional because “Mary will be our protectress,” she said.

It was heartening for Carboni in the re-opening weeks to witness the children and staff come together to engage in arts, games and a host of other activities. There were some special gatherings staged online for the St. Bernadette family during the lockdown, but being together in the same physical space adds a vibrant dimension.

Parents expressed concern over safety protocols, but no issues have cropped up the first days into the renewal. 

“Everyone is doing just fine,” said Carboni. “They are wearing masks, they’re behaving and they are happy to be out of their home. My staff are doing well. The foundation of everything we do is on faith, and that makes such a difference.”

Carboni first opened the doors to St. Bernadette’s in 1990. Her passion and commitment to her vocation have not dimmed in the successive 30 years.

“The people I serve, I think they have a master’s degree in joy. They live with their soul and that is important, especially today. They have no problem being loving, joyful and compassionate individuals, and they have taught us joyful simplicity and how to trust.”

Starting Sept. 25, the team at the Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre in Pickering, Ont., will get to undergo a, well, spiritual renewal of its own when the doors open once more to welcome retreatants.

Fittingly, the 2020-21 retreat season’s launching pad event is a three-day get-together (Sept. 25-27) entitled “Let’s start at the very beginning.”

Fr. Michael Coutts, SJ, will helm a gathering that looks at the Church during the days of the first apostles and examine the Church’s role pre-virus and now.

Manresa director Fr. Henk van Meijel says the capacity for these retreats will, for the foreseeable future, scale down to a 40-attendant capacity rather than the usual 65-70.

Van Meijel is delighted that Manresa can serve as a sanctuary again.

“What I enjoy is being a witness to spiritual healing,” he said. “People come here and they get healed, get away from the noise of the world and the daily drama of life. People have told me that they are moved to tears when they drive up to the centre’s gate.”

Not all retreat centres have had the opportunity to reopen, however. Providence Spirituality Centre in Kingston, Ont., remains closed.

“The reason our centre remains closed is that we are not housed in a private building,” said Sr. Lucy Bethel in an e-mail.

“We are part of the Providence Motherhouse complex, home of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. We are currently still in compliance with the local health unit COVID-19 protocols and for many reasons are unable to begin our regular programming at this time.”

Providence’s spiritual directors have offered one-on-one support and private virtual retreats during the pandemic-imposed lockdown.

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