Seeking tranquility, vacationers head to Northwest monasteries

May 25, 2013

Feeling maddened by the madding crowd? Dreaming of a quiet beach, or a mountain lodge? Looking for a way to retreat from the chaos? Perhaps what you need is, in fact, a retreat.

Sand, sun, and surf may be the image you have when you think of a getaway. But for some, the vacation this year has little to do with the beach and more to do with quiet introspection. 

Welcome to the world of monastic retreats. 

“Many people live a very frantic, hectic life,” says Meet Mary Schmidt who runs the Spirit Center at the Monastery of St. Gertrude’s in Cottonwood, Idaho. 

“Rather than going on another vacation—you know, more hectic sort of things, they choose to come here, center themselves and get quite for a while. So we have people who do that to rest we also have people who come here, looking for deeper meaning in their life to center themselves,” she said.

Credit St. Gertrude's Facebook page

What you first notice about St. Gertrude’s Monastery is the red caps atop of the turrets. The grey stone building is reminiscent of a medieval castle. But you won’t find it cold or damp here; the sisters are warm and welcoming. 

"We have our little flower garden back there. We got some tulips and daffodils,” said sister Chanelle.

Sister Chanelle wore her Kiwanis Club jacket as she hiked with me. She’s proud of her jacket because she was one of the first female Kiwanis members of her club. She led me to a trail. 

“We’re also a weather station. A sister goes out and reads the temperature every night, and measures the rainfall and snow fall every day. That’s our orchard with an 8-foot deer fence, because the deer like our trees. And this is the statue of St. Gertrude,” she says, pointing out each corner of the monastery.

Credit St. Gertrude's Facebook page

There are 49 other sisters who call St. Gertrude’s home. Many of them have careers in nursing, law, and teaching. One sister is a forestry manager. There are a handful of women who became nuns in their late teens; many came to the life after motherhood, divorce, or widowhood. The sisters come from many walks of life, and that’s what makes this place so inclusive. 

“These women are just fabulous,” said Becky Stanton of Boise, who was on her second retreat. “They’re so humble and so caring. They’re incredibly funny. It would be a real shame to have them disappear from the face of the Earth so I have decided to channel some of my charities to this particular monastery, because it’s just fabulous.” 

Stanton was attending an organized retreat called “Everyday Monk.”Participants learn ways to incorporate Benedictine principles into daily life such as prayer, simplifying your lifestyle, and serving others. 

An organized retreat lasts between 3 to 7 days long. Participants stay at the Spirit Center in comfortable dorm-style rooms. Guests are invited to eat meals with the sisters, and can participate in prayer and church services.

Classes have a set schedule, but there is plenty of free time to explore. 
And there is a lot to see St. Gertrude’s is home to a Historical museum which houses the story of the Benedictine Sisters, the Nez Perce people, artifacts from Buckskin Bill, and Polly Bemis, a Chinese American pioneer who lived in Idaho in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Credit St. Gertrude's Facebook page

Those who prefer to be on their own can schedule an individual retreat. These guests stay in their dorm room, read, take in the silence, and walk the grounds. They can meet with a sister if they wish and are invited to meals. The Sisters of St. Gertrude’s are very accommodating. 

“I have read that the Northwest is one of the most un-churched regions in the country,” says Sister Teresa, St. Gertrude’s membership director who has a kind face framed by round glasses. “And yet, what’s fascinating is here we are in some little corner of Idaho, in a Benedictine monastery, and as I think you’ve seen, we have an incredible number of people coming to our retreats, coming to events, who are connecting with us in a variety of ways.”

Other monasteries are connecting with people as well. Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Carlton, Oregon reports its guesthouse is “very busy” with reservation booked 8 to 10 months in advance. While the sisters of St. Gertrude’s are open to all visitors, other monasteries have restrictions on who can stay and how long you may visit. 

Stanton says she’ll come back to St. Gertrude’s for rest, relaxation, and answers to her spirituality. Her advice to those thinking about a monastic retreat: “Don’t be scared. The women are fabulous, and they’ll take fabulous care of you. They’ll feed you very well and give you lots of free time. Go listen to them sing and pray, and get into it because it’s wonderful.”