Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
October 1, 2001
A respite for HIV-AIDS sufferers
Winnipeg retreat gives people a break from their normal lives
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
WINNIPEG — Set in lovely sylvan grounds alongside Manitoba's swirling Red River, it has been called one of Winnipeg's best-kept secrets. It is St. Benedict's, a retreat and conference centre which now has 42 nuns in its community, most of them in their seventies and eighties.
Next year the sisters will celebrate the 90th anniversary of their legislative charter in Manitoba and a celebration and public open house is planned for Sept. 8, 2002.
The nuns came to Manitoba in 1911 to teach the children of poor Polish immigrants. They set up a school in Winnipeg and had 400 students by 1912.
When they first set foot in the province they had no building, no furniture and only 27 cents. But they managed to beg and borrow enough to open their school at 315 Selkirk Ave. in a house owned by the Holy Ghost Parish.
Later they also opened an orphanage on Winnipeg's Pritchard Avenue. The nuns begged in the streets to get money and food for the children in their care.
Later they bought 300 acres at Arborg north of Winnipeg and tried their hand at farming. In Arborg they opened an orphanage and in lean years they caught rabbits and shot ducks to feed their 75 young charges. They also kept bees and did spinning.
In 1960 the Sisters of St. Benedict decided to leave their base at Arborg and return to Winnipeg. In that year the cornerstone was laid for the present convent on the Red River.
At first the nuns operated St. Benedict's Academy, a private residential school for girls in Grades 7-12. It closed in 1970 and the Benedictines converted the facility into a conference and retreat centre.
Next year St. Benedict's will also celebrate the 10th anniversary of Heartsong, a unique three-day retreat which is offered to anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people living with HIV or AIDS.
The sisters also provide a retreat for the unemployed. But the Heartsong event is unique in North America and fills a great spiritual need.
Sister Mary Coswin, retreat and conference centre director, got the idea for Heartsong from a similar event she attended some years ago in Texas. That one lasted only a couple of years then petered out.
Heartsong is free of charge to the 15 to 20 people living with HIV who usually attend. It includes pleasant accommodation, all meals and snacks for three days, music, creative writing and spiritual contemplation classes.
A talent night is also scheduled where staff and visitors can read, tell jokes, sing, play a musical instrument, act or entertain in any way they like. Also on the program is a campfire and marshmallow roast on the monastery grounds. The Heartsong retreat also holds a remembrance service every year for those who have passed on due to AIDS-related illnesses.
One year, participants planted a garden of forget-me-nots. Another year guests released hydrogen balloons with names and messages attached. This year, for the first time, a spiritual service, which included aboriginal smudging and anointing with holy oil, was held in the monastery's chapel.
The intention is to give people living with the stress of HIV or AIDS a break from their "normal" life. Some may have just been diagnosed. Others may have been living with the disease for 10 years or more. Heartsong gives them a chance to connect with others in the same boat. It also provides a chance to be cared for and to care for others.
When new participants arrive, they are often anxious, frightened and quiet, not knowing what to expect. One nun compares them to flowers with all their petals curled up, but, as the three-day retreat progresses, these multi-layered, multi-coloured petals unfold, revealing human beings who shine with inner richness and strength.
The spirit is still there. It has just been badly mauled by all the travails and disappointments that flesh is heir to.
At Heartsong a deep trust grows up and wounded people are able to share openly and honestly, expressing grief and joy, often accompanied by tears. By the end of the retreat, many are reluctant to leave and phone numbers are exchanged with promises of reunions.
Although the retreat has some formal structure with classroom sessions, there is no pressure to attend all sessions and plenty of free time is provided for walks in the grounds, artwork, reading or quiet meditation. Participants are encouraged to bring books or musical instruments.
Jocelyn Preston, an HIV nurse from St. Boniface Hospital, has been to eight Heartsongs as a helper, but readily admits the retreat helps her come to terms with her own challenges and wounds: "It's a chance for people to feel nurtured and cared about. They get something you won't find in a clinic, where they may go for general health care."
Preston has often been deeply touched by the event.
"People living with HIV often feel isolated and can't talk to many people about it in the outside world," she observes. "Here they know they share a common illness and they can let their guard down a little. For a few days life begins to look better and there is plenty of laughter."
But she says it takes courage to attend and she has known of people who agreed to attend and drove as far as the gates of St. Benedict's but left, unable to overcome their fear of the unknown. Others have come for a day, then gone away.
Faigie Greaves, a Winnipeg nurse and former Village Clinic volunteer, has attended half a dozen Heartsongs as a helper and never fails to be deeply touched and changed by the event and the people she meets. Originally she attended to give moral support to a young HIV positive man she had befriended. He agreed to go if she did.
He died at age 29 but she has continued to support the event and has made many new friends through it:
"I've heard many heartbreaking stories and it makes me appreciate the good things in my own life," she says. "Heartsong has taught me a lot about myself and it has made me grow spiritually. The atmosphere is accepting, loving, forgiving and very hospitable."
Sister Mary Coswin welcomes every participant individually and often sheds tears herself - for the pains of her own life and especially at some of the heart-wrenching stories that are shared at Heartsong. She says she is constantly astounded at the courage and inner strength of those who attend.
Over the past nine years she has seen Heartsong change. At first the retreatants were mostly gay men, but today there are more women and more aboriginals. The makeup of Heartsong reflects the changes in the HIV epidemic, which is now frequently infecting intravenous drug users, women and aboriginals. She has also seen many familiar faces disappear, due to worsening illness or death.
The mood at Heartsong is caring, upbeat and hopeful. Losses are mourned but life is also celebrated and the gifts of every participant are nurtured and cherished.
Taking care of the other person might mean making an effort to talk to them, going for a walk with them or making a surprise gift.
At the final sharing session, life has returned to eyes that were initially dull with pain and hurt. Trust has grown up. Parting is always sad and many participants exclaim how glad they were to have overcome their initial reservations to attend.
Richard has been HIV positive for many years and still works. He has been to four Heartsongs and has lost several friends to the disease.
"I go because it's relaxing and I can get away from the noise and traffic and cares of the workaday world," he says. "I also like to meet new people and every year I meet someone new. At Heartsong you can communicate in a very honest way and don't have to hide or be on guard."
Charles has also been living with HIV for many years and he has attended seven of the nine Heartsongs held so far: "I enjoy coming because you can relax and get away from the cares of the world," he says. "Here we get away from the news and the daily grind and you meet old friends and make new ones."
Charles isn't particularly religious, but he thinks Heartsong is a wonderful gift from the nuns and that it does help hurting people. He always participates in important sharing sessions.
"Here you can compare notes because you know the others have the same disease and you don't need to hide it," he says. "It's very useful talking about different treatments and problems, but we don't spend too much time on the illness. We do a lot of general socializing besides."
Sister Mary says Heartsong can only be held because of the generosity of private donors. If you would like to support the work of the nuns or Heartsong with gifts of time or money, you can call Sister Mary Coswin at (204) 339-1705 or write to her at St. Benedict's Retreat and Conference Centre, 225 Masters Ave., Winnipeg R4A 2Al.
(Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a former Manitoba correspondent for Time Canada, Macleans and The Financial Post. He has also broadcast on the local, national and international networks of CBC Radio.)
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