Northwest Monasteries Become Vacation Getaways

May 17, 2013

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…” Meet Mary Schmidt.  She runs the Spirit Center at the Monastery of St. Gertrude’s in Cottonwood, Idaho.

"… and rather than going on another vacation, you know, more hectic sort of things, they choose to come here, center themselves and get quiet 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.”

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….”  Sister Channel wears her Kiwanis club jacket as she hikes with me. She’s proud of her jacket because she was one of the first female Kiwanis members of her club. She leads 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.”

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…” Becky Stanton of Boise is 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.”

Becky is here for the organized retreat called “Everyday Monk” where participants learn ways to incorporate Benedictine principles into daily life such as prayer, simplifying your lifestyle, and serving others.  

An organized retreat can be between 3-7 days long. Participants stay at the Spirit Center in comfortable dorm style rooms. You are invited to eat meals with the sisters. You 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 here. 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.

There are those who prefer to be on their own and choose to schedule an individual retreat, where they stay in their dorm room, read, take in the silence, and walk the grounds. You can meet with a sister if you want 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…”

Sister Teresa is the membership director of St. Gertrude’s. She has a kind face and wears  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 their guest house is “very busy” with reservation booked 8-10 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.

Becky 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. It’s fun, it’s fun!”

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio