Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner October 1, 2020
Our area has some amazing, often hidden, places, full of historical lore and modern relevance. One of these is the Villa St. Joseph Ecology and Spirituality Centre on Lake Ontario in Cobourg.
It is a stately old building first constructed in 1844, on the north shore of the Lake, with a vast vista and ten acres of grassland and gardens, walkways, a beehive, a labyrinth, pollinator gardens and large areas of milkweed, making it an accredited monarch “way station,” supporting butterflies on their flights. It’s a kind of a naturalist’s Shangri-La, right close to urban areas.
In 1844, a Cobourg merchant named Winkworth Tremaine had the great home built. Then, late in the 19th century, the famous Civil War general who later became the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, bought the property for his daughter, Nellie Grant Sartoris, who lived there in the summers for about 20 years. It was then the site of grand parties with prominent American guests. In fact, the present chapel of the Villa was once a stable, and later, a ballroom.
Bought by a community of nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peterborough, in 1921, to serve as an orphanage for girls, it was renovated in 1974 to become a retreat centre now served by four Sisters. Several of the Sisters took advanced studies in environmental science and spirituality. This has led to the Villa assuming its present identity as an ecumenical centre for ecology and faith. As we face climate chaos, and wise voices are calling for deep cultural, ethical and religious conversion alongside crucial technical and scientific changes, the Villa seems to have been prophetic in discerning its mission for these times.
Its readiness and spiritual strengths have meshed with a renewed contemporary attachment to the natural world which is in distress, in a time of great threat, and in a time of COVID reassessment. As Sister Mary Rowell, CSJ said to me: “COVID-19 has its invitations.”
With a full program of small-group gatherings, days of stillness and theology courses, and a vast library of books, magazines and tapes on the topics of creation, food, nature, water, growing things, wisdom from the past, simplicity and consumerism, the Villa is attracting people from all over Ontario and beyond, who are seeking reflection, purpose and hope.
In 2021, there will be a graduate course in eco-spirituality over four weekends. I was happy to see that the Villa was partially open to visitors again, under COVID-19 protocols. My day in September was a facilitated one, led by Les Miller, a retired educator from Richmond Hill and a gifted photographer, who has just published a book entitled “Northern Light,” full of his stunning photos from all across Canada, our iconic scenes: the Confederation Bridge, the Gaspe, Peggy’s Cove, the Rockies, the city of Toronto skyline and so on.
Les Miller’s pictures are accompanied by reflections and prayers, all contemporary and agreeable to a modern consciousness.
We walked the grounds slowly, marvelling at the trees, the puff balls, the marigolds, goldenrod and snapdragons, the glistening lake with a distant sail boat, the lake birds, the fossil embedded rocks, the vegetables, and the 80 plots being tended by members of the Northumberland Community Gardens.
Miller speaks often of “spiritual curation.” To “curate” is to look after and preserve, after selecting and organizing. It implies choice, decision and clear thinking. He is also seeking a specifically Canadian way of appreciating the world. We have become so dominated by the views and values of our southern neighbour, we risk having nothing to offer.
The Villa is full of delightful surprises. This visit introduced me to a wise fifth century Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who is considered the founder of Taoism. There was a wall hanging that drew my attention: “Say what you have to say fully, then be quiet.”