Sisters in Ontario blend ecology and spirituality in retreat center ministry

With master's degrees and doctorates in eco-theology and eco-ethics, St. Joseph Srs. Linda Gregg and Mary Rowell run the Villa St. Joseph Ecology and Spirituality Centre in Cobourg, Ontario. The two teach university eco-theology courses from the center, which also houses a large community garden, and offer retreats and reflection for all faiths focused on the interconnectedness of spirituality and the Earth.

The building that has become Villa St. Joseph started as a home built around 1836 for a prominent local merchant, Winkworth Tremaine, Gregg said. The sisters' archivist is researching the exact story of the home, but Gregg said historians believe stagecoach and steamship executives later owned the home.

Cobourg became a summer destination for wealthy American families in the late 1800s, and as Gregg described, "many large houses were bought by both sides of the Civil War as 'boltholes' if their side didn't win." The home was eventually owned by the daughter of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (who later became U.S. president), Nellie Grant.

When she died, her second husband sold the home and 10 acres to the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1921 to be used as a girls' orphanage. Rowell said they have been in touch with women who were raised in the orphanage who had happy memories of their time at the house and grounds.

By the 1950s, it served as a seasonal retreat center for sisters and, later, was broadened into a year-round space for novitiate training, retreats for Catholics and, eventually, spiritual retreats for people of any faith.

When she arrived at Villa St. Joseph in 1994, Gregg expected to spend only a couple of years helping the effort. She hadn't imagined how her personal passion for the Earth and nature would develop into a thriving ecological and spirituality center for people from many faith backgrounds.

Gregg grew up on Cordova Bay in British Columbia in an isolated, rural setting by the sea. She describes learning to garden at just 3 years old from a neighbor who often babysat her.

As she reflected on the transition into her community, Gregg used a journal entry from the time she professed first vows to remember a crisis she faced.

"How can I live my dedication and commitment to God and not live my dedication and commitment to the Earth?" she said. "I prayed very profoundly about that, because at that time, sisters weren't into ecology. It was just some little thing that kept me happy, and they were delighted to have the flower garden. A tomato plant might appear here and there; it was nice, but it wasn't mission. I really felt God saying to me, 'This is what you need to do now, Linda. Follow this path. Make your first vows. Keep your love for your Earth in your heart, and I'll show you the way.' And God did."

Rowell credits her love for gardening to her childhood spent in England surrounded by "generations of English country gardens, rambling flowers and fruits in the gardens." She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph around 2005 after spending her discernment period ministering and writing her doctorate at Villa St. Joseph. She had already traveled the world as a nurse and nurse educator, experiencing heartbreaking images of poverty and the breakdown of cohesion between the environment and humans. After her novitiate, Rowell was assigned elsewhere before returning to Villa St. Joseph about five years ago.

"I realized that we can never separate out the suffering of humans and the suffering of the environment. It's like a vicious cycle," Rowell said. "Where there is human suffering, we have increasing environmental degradation. Where there's environmental degradation, we have increasing human suffering."

When a community garden in the region lost its land, the sisters were approached to use part of the retreat center's 10 acres for new gardening plots. Gregg was thrilled to put her market garden background into spiritual use through expanding the ministry at Villa St. Joseph. What started as six plots for groups and individuals of varying socioeconomic backgrounds to create a community garden overlooking Lake Ontario has turned into 80 plots.

In an effort to expand its outreach, the center brought on St. Joseph Sr. Christine Carbotte, who recently professed first vows, as an information technology and computer expert. She helps with tech issues at the center and updates its website and social media pages so sisters, community members and others interested can learn more about the center's ecological efforts.

When Carbotte got excited about a new way to save surplus organic carrots over the winter, she shared it on Facebook. She plans to use the platform to offer food sustainability and conservation advice to the public.

In the future, Rowell anticipates creating new youth-focused programming "to get them very conscious of their relationship with the Earth and understanding it in the light of their faith traditions, too."

[Dana Wachter is a freelance journalist and digital storyteller based in London, Ontario.]