Finding strength and solace by spending time in a place of spiritual renewal is a Franciscan tradition stretching back to St Francis who spent time in prayer and reflection by himself and with his brothers on Mount La Verna, outside Assisi. In time other friars would continue this tradition of providing retreat services for those outside of the Order.
The first Franciscan Retreat House in Australia was established in 1931 in Melbourne. Appropriately named ‘La Verna’, it was located at Kew, Victoria, with accommodation, a chapel and beautiful gardens for peaceful contemplation. This and similar centres which had operated in Sydney and Palmerston North (New Zealand) have since closed.
The Franciscan Retreat Centre which continues to offer spiritual renewal programs for Catholic lay men and women and religious is that which was established in Auckland in 1939. Set on spacious and peaceful grounds in the middle of suburbia, the centre provides an ambience for meditation and prayer and for feeling close to God. The friars and staff of St Francis Retreat Centre offer a warm welcome to people of all faith traditions who wish to come for personal or group retreats, for conferences or personal development programs. It is a well-known venue for people who wish to take “time out” from the busyness of life and seek spiritual refreshment.
A slightly different concept, a “House of Prayer”, has been an integral part of the life of the Province for more than three decades. In 1978, a small cottage on the Maryfields novitiate property at Campbelltown, outside Sydney, was set aside to provide a quiet place for friars’ contemplation and renewal. Initially called a “Hermitage” and comprising three resident friars who lived a semi-contemplative lifestyle, the concept was relocated to Guildford in rural Victoria in 1981, taking the name “Francis Haven” which is the name of the property of the donors.
Their primary ministry was that of prayer, contemplation, simple living and work on the farm, often welcoming clergy, religious and lay people for short periods of quiet, reflective time in the self-contained guest cottage. Unfortunately, this ministry of prayer and hospitality was closed in mid-2014 due to the shortage of friars to form a permanent community in that location. The neighbours miss the friars’ gentle and prayerful presence around Guildford, the friars miss the practical and friendly support of the neighbours and we continue to pray for each other. Perhaps another similar venture will arise one day. In the meantime, prayer, contemplation and hospitality continues to be an integral part of the friars’ life in their local communities.