Behind the imposing brick walls of the Mount St Benedict Centre at Pennant Hills in Sydney, just a stone’s throw from traffic chaos, is a beautiful oasis of peace, calm and spiritual nurturing, writes Debra Vermeer.
BY Debra Vermeer*
Drivers crawling along busy Pennant Hills Road in Sydney may have wondered from time to time what lies behind the imposing brick walls of the Mount St Benedict Centre. The answer is that behind those walls, just a stone’s throw from the traffic chaos, is a beautiful oasis of peace, calm and spiritual nurturing, and all are welcome.
The Mount St Benedict Centre is a retreat, spirituality and conference centre, run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Director, Sister Elizabeth Brennan SGS, says the ministry at the centre attempts to respond to the thirst for meaning in life.
“I see it as a place that offers opportunities for quiet, reflection, study, learning, and just to have one’s spirit nourished,” she says. “It offers people the opportunity to be able to step out of the busyness of life. That’s a great gift in this busy world and I think it’s what people are looking for. People are searching for centredness in a fragmented world.”
When one does step out of the busyness of life and arrive at the centre, the distinctively Benedictine and Good Samaritan spirituality of the place is immediately apparent.
The first thing you notice is the natural beauty of the gardens, the sense of space, of quiet, of peace. Nobody rushes here. All is well.
The second thing that strikes you is the warm welcome at the big wooden door at reception. “All guests are to be received as we would receive Christ,” says the Rule of St Benedict (RB 53), and so it is that you are enveloped in graciousness and warm hospitality from the moment the door swings open.
It is no surprise then, that the centre is a popular place for both groups and individuals to take time out for nourishment and formation.
Indeed formation is a theme which runs strongly through the history of the Mount St Benedict Centre. From 1927 until 1999 more than 776 Good Samaritan novices lived and studied in the grand old building.
The original house, called Regenbah, was built in 1906 by Edgar Olley Jones, on the highest part of the hill. Mr Jones sold it to the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in 1922 and it became the residence of the sisters from March 19, 1925. In February 1927, the foundation stones of the chapel and the novitiate building were laid by Archbishop Michael Kelly.
Elizabeth says a feature of the Regenbah house was the original cloister. The architect of the novitiate building extended the cloister right around to the new building, where it remains a striking feature today.
“The purpose of the cloister here is as a reflective space to prepare oneself as you move from work to prayer, or simply as a place of quiet where one can walk up and down while one allows the softness of the arches to impact on you,” she says. “The arches are continued into the chapel.”
The big old novitiate building which now houses the centre is full of soaring ceilings and natural light, with spaces for all sorts of quiet reflection or group activity, such as painting and artwork. Upstairs there is guest accommodation for 37 people in the rooms that were once home to the novices.
One of the women who passed through the novitiate in the 1960s was Dawn Peat. After leaving the Good Samaritan congregation in 1970, Dawn went on to marry and have a family, settling just a short drive from Mount St Benedict.
These days, Dawn is one of the valued volunteers who help out at the centre each week, and she is also a frequent attendee of events at the centre.
“My link with this place goes right back to 1962 when I came here as a postulant,” she says. “I have very good memories of that time. I received a great formative experience of being around luminous women of great education, insight and warmth.”
After she’d raised her family and finished working as a teacher, Dawn once again looked to Mount St Benedict.
“I thought it was time I give something back,” she says. “So I asked them if they needed help with anything.”
Now she heads up to the centre each week and does “whatever needs doing”. That can include everything from flower arranging to reading out journal articles onto CD for the sisters to listen to as they travel about or relax.
“I see my role as just freeing them up here to do what they do best,” she says.
When she’s not volunteering, Dawn can often be found taking part in some of the various activities on offer.
“I come here to take part in e-conferences, as well as things like the Advent Festival, and I recently came to a card-making day that Sister Judith Souter SGS, who is a very talented artist, put on,” she says.
“They are spiritually nurturing things. I think this is a spiritual oasis for a lot of people. A place like this offers the opportunity for people to just stop. We can get so tied up with what we’re doing in our life that we become like downhill skiiers – we can do almost anything except stop!”
Among those who come to use the centre are Catholic Education Offices from the Sydney Archdiocese, Wollongong Diocese and the Broken Bay Diocese, who hold teacher and staff formation days. In addition, teachers, mission leaders and others involved with Good Samaritan Education’s 10 Colleges around the nation, make use of Mount St Benedict for their formation.
The centre is also home to reflection and planning days for parishes (including Anglican and Uniting Churches), school boards, Sydney Alliance, Engaged Encounter, Probus groups and View Clubs, The Broken Bay Institute, CatholicCare’s pastoral care workers, Catholic Health Care, Disability awareness formation, lay missionaries through PALMS Australia, and interfaith groups.
Religious congregations make good use of the centre, including the Sisters of the Good Samaritan themselves, who hold formation and reflection days, retreats, planning and governance days there.
“We also host programs here for people experiencing different types of anxieties,” Elizabeth says.
“Vulnerable people who are grieving the loss of a child through abortion come here for Rachel’s Vineyard retreats. Others who are starting over after a loss through death or divorce or relationship breakdown come for the Beginning Experience weekend; and the Solace Association offers grief support for those grieving over the loss of a partner.
“People don’t always come to take part in groups. Recently three women who were very fragile in their inner beings came for quiet and restoration. One of them said she was not a believer, but she needed to be restored in mind and spirit by having some time out.”
Others come to Mount St Benedict seeking spiritual direction, which is available with Sister Carol Tomlinson SGS, whose ministry experience has also included teaching, adult faith education, especially in the area of spiritualty, and retreat direction. She describes the spiritual direction process as “happening in a relationship between two people, where both are focused on the gradual recognition of God’s action in the here and now”.
There are three full time sisters and three part time sisters on staff at the centre. They are supported professionally by an executive assistant, librarians for the theological library, housekeepers, cleaning staff, a gardener (one of the sisters is a trained horticulturalist), catering staff and three valued volunteers.
The extensive theological library was once the novitiate library but is now open to anyone who is associated with the centre, for a membership fee of just $30 a year.
Librarian Rose Rogenmoser says the collection has a broad range of theological and spiritual books and journals as well as audio books, CDs and DVDs.
“We have a very good collection of Benedictine material, as well as spirituality in general, and psychology,” Rose says. “And we have a wonderful journal collection, which we’ve started putting onto CDs. That has been well received. Some of the sisters who drive a lot listen to them in the car and they are popular with teachers too.
“We invite everyone who has an association with us to make use of the library and the catalogue is also online so people can order a book and we will post it to them. That works very well for people in rural areas.”
A visit to the Mount St Benedict Centre reveals that its ministry of hospitality and spirituality is so multi-faceted that it doesn’t fit neatly into a box, and that’s the way the sisters like it.
It means, says Elizabeth, that they can concentrate instead on meeting the different needs of the people who use the centre, a freedom of ministry that goes right back to the founder of the Good Samaritan Sisters, Archbishop John Bede Polding.
“It’s a lovely freedom, to be able to meet people’s needs,” she says. “It’s that freedom to respond to people that really makes this a Good Sam ministry in its essence.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both the Catholic and secular media. When she’s not working, she loves early morning walks, summers on the beach and long Sunday lunches with family and friends.
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