You probably know about or have at least seen most of the major landmarks at the top of Mission Hill along St. Vital Avenue: St. Albert Catholic Parish, the Father Lacombe Chapel, the Bishop’s Palace, the grotto and the cemetery. You might even know about the Foyer Lacombe hospice facility that sits overlooking the east-facing side of the green expanse on the west side of St. Albert Trail.
How about the Star of the North Retreat Centre? The 65-year-old facility that’s tucked away from view of the main road serves a higher purpose and not just for Catholics either. It offers a place of rest and reflection to one and all, or at least those who know about it. Even when you’re standing right in front of it, one might disregard it as a simple office building or possibly a storage site. Not even GoogleMaps pinpoints it properly either.
The Star is embarking on a three-year capital campaign to raise funds to undertake some major renovations. This requires people to know that it even exists.
Executive director Lucie Leduc says marketing such a modest and unassuming retreat is akin to a catch-22 situation.
“I think a big challenge for me, personally, is getting out literally, going on the road and meeting people in different areas. There’s so much to be done here. It’s that balance of being on site and off site to promote the place,” she began.
“I do retreats off site and do things when I’m requested to, but I don’t go literally looking and that’s a challenge. And another challenge is really keeping up with the needs of people or the perceived needs in programs and so on that we can do with such a small staff and a small core here.”
To boil it down: the Star of the North is a place of peace and quiet reflection, and that means it’s not going to set up a big neon sign or do other things to draw attention to itself. Its work focuses on people’s inner lives. It sits in the shadows for a good reason. Now, its aging structure belies its undying purpose. It’s time that it shines a spotlight on itself.
The history of the Star
The Star of the North was opened in 1953 by the Oblates, turning it into one of four sister retreats across Canada. The Catholic order aims to work with and to serve the impoverished, which is probably another good reason you won’t find any opulence in any of the Star’s 50-plus rooms. Its original intent was to offer a place for Catholics seeking spiritual renewal. Quiet places are often key for one’s own psychological or emotional recharging after all.
Over the years and decades, its doors have opened up to people of all denominations and faiths. It’s also there for people who simply need a bit of “me” time. That’s how Leduc was first introduced to the Star 30 years ago. She had just gotten her teaching degree but, with young children at home, there was no quiet time to be had.
“From the time I was younger, I had … sought a place to discern things and to work things out for myself. I found retreat places were the perfect place for me,” she began.
“The first retreat I came on was actually at the Star. My mom paid for it so that I could come. It was great. It was her way of saying, ‘OK, take a break, I’ll look after the kids and you go do your thing.’ It was a great retreat. From there on, I thought, ‘Oh, I need this every year. One weekend at least a year.’ And so I did that. And I did some teaching stints, but I still ached for that.”
Anyone can do that – rent a room for a night, a weekend, or longer – to get away from the rigmarole of one’s own life. Alternatively, the facility hosts a number of programs and services for the public to attend, some of which are free of charge. There are support circles and meditative writing workshops, for example.
Edmonton author Carissa Halton credits the Star for playing an important role in the development of her recent book, Little Yellow House, which was published last year. Halton made sure to include concentrated and repeat retreat time at the centre as part of her work plan. She, too, had small children at home and we all know how productive creative people should expect to be when there are crying, hungry children demanding your attention.
She booked four full weekend retreats over the course of a year. The way she describes it makes it sound like it didn’t just serve to help her crank out pages; it sounds like it served her spirit deeply, too.
“One time I was there during New Year’s. I was literally the only person there on New Year’s Day. There was nobody out there and I just wandered the halls and I wandered in the graveyard and I went downtown along in the trails. Of course, along there, it’s so, so lovely. It’s quiet inside and then to be able to walk through St. Albert and then take that little bit of a break from this thinking and the quiet was just really awesome. One weekend, I think I wrote 20,000 words. Just boom … got her done. It was really significant,” she recalled.
“I think that it provided me that opportunity to get the space away from the busyness of my life. It gave me that time where it really was quiet and has lots of spaces for reflection, too, like the chapel. I’d sometimes go in and play the piano. I think Little Yellow House is what it is because I had that time.”
She added it’s a very affordable way to get away, and that she is not Catholic. You do have to be comfortable with the religious iconography and that it’s situated right in the heart of the city’s Catholic history, but otherwise, it’s open to one and all.
Halton was one of several thousand people who come through the centre’s doors every year. Truth be told, it does more than offer retreat space. It also hosts hundreds of events annually, some of which are public. In recent years, it has hosted former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine as well as Chief Willie Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson as part of its ongoing series of talks and presentations on reconciliation.
“They all came to very, very good turnouts. We try and do two a year that can keep moving things forward and keep having a conversation around what we need to be doing to heal and to reconcile. That’s a commitment we made,” Leduc said.
Later this year, the Star of the North will be the site for a two-year program called the Anamcara Project. According to the Star’s website at www.starofthenorth.ca, Anamcara is an internationally celebrated program that is coming to St. Albert as a “collaboration with the Sacred Art of Living Institute and its founder, Richard Groves.”
It’s an apprenticeship that offers an immersion in the ancient Celtic tradition of Anamcara (translated as soul friendship) contemporary model of training and certification for professional and lay caregivers. Its purpose is to “deepen the quality of all our relationships and enable caregivers to become ‘compassionate companions’ through all the stages of living and dying.”
Groves will be coming to the Star (along with guests Ann Jacob and Stan Tomandl) to offer a presentation called Breaking New Ground Together, a talk on Celtic and Indigenous Spiritualities with wisdom for healing and reconciliation. It will take place on Sunday, April 28, from 1 to 4 p.m. Tickets are $25 each. Details can be found on the website.
Leduc said this new partnership reaffirms how more people should come to know the Star of the North instead of driving by the well-kept secret.
“I think we’re just very lucky to have any retreat centres because they are places where people are on a spiritual journey. It doesn’t matter where they’re at: whether they’re in a religion or out of a religion. They’re on a path, a spiritual path or path of wellness, and retreat centres are the places that welcome them and help them to keep going – unplug from all of the stresses and pressures and noise that’s out there. It gives them a place to think and to reflect and to come closer in a relationship with God as they know God and understand God.”
Late last year, the Star started to shine that spotlight on itself with a capital campaign aptly called the Starlight Shine-On Campaign. The building has been in a constant cycle of renovations for more than a decade. Now, it’s at the point where administrators have set the next three years to concentrate on doing some really important work to help the 65-year-old structure thrive for the future.
They’ve already redone all of the main bedrooms with new paint and carpet. The second level is next. The plan calls for some larger projects including reshingling the roof this year (plus adding windows to the chapel) and resurfacing the exterior in 2020.
“It’s been slowly buckling and coming undone, and we’ve had to patch it. So we figure it just needs to be done,” Leduc said.
Finally, an overhaul of the barn-style chapel is on the agenda for the pièce de résistance.
“We want to really do an overhaul of the chapel. It needs all new furniture. It needs a whole new look. We’re doing the windows this year and then afterwards, we will do the carpet, all of the new furniture, the paint job, and whatever else needs to get changed in there including any beautifying. It’s just a question of maybe replacing some of the older statues.”
Leduc added the renovation will likely work a miracle in improving the sanctity of the structure but that the spirit of the Star of the North will remain steadfast in the shadows, offering a place of quiet reflection for one and all.