Mount St Francis
- Any history of a Franciscan Retreat Centre like Mount St. Francis at Cochrane, Alberta, cannot properly begin without reference to the birth of St. Francis of Assisi in Umbria, Italy in 1182.
While still a young man, St. Francis founded one of the largest religious orders in the history of the Church. Following his example of humility, Franciscans have since preached the following of the poor Christ all over the world for over 800 years. As well, the Franciscan Secular Order numbers hundreds of thousands in many countries.
When St. Francis, in answering the call “To repair my house falling in ruins,” was restoring the ruined church of St. Damian at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the plains of Alberta were inhabited by vast herds of buffalo and the First Nations people who relied on them for their livelihood. The First Nations people first heard the message of Christ with the arrival of such pioneers as the Oblate missionaries Fathers Scollen, Doucette, and Lacombe, who soon discovered these people were monotheists with the same deep reverence for God’s hand in nature as St. Francis had. They, too, talked about Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, and Sister Water, and they had the same affinity for Mother Earth.
North of the Bow River, near what is now Cochrane, Alberta, the First Nations people known as the Stoney Indians hunted along the foothills of the Rockies called a prominent hill “Manachaban” or the Big Hill. From it, they could look south across the plains or west to the Rocky Mountains. Today, the Big Hill is graced by the Stations of the Cross which overlook the beautiful building known as Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre.
The present site was originally owned by Mr. Charles Wellington Fisher, who purchased the land in 1907 and built the original sandstone house in 1908. Today, that house makes up an integral part of the retreat centre. Mr. Fisher’s family occupied the home until 1931, when it was sold to the McConachie family, and became the “Just Home Guest Ranch.” On March 10, 1949, the Franciscans purchased the property, in part. Mr. Clair J. Cote purchased the remaining land and very generously donated it to the Franciscans. The Friars built the first wing for retreatants and on August 15, 1949 gave their first retreat to the Calgary Diocesan clergy. Retreats for lay people began that same autumn. Friar Louis Geelan, presently a member of the Retreat Team, was on that first retreat.
Since that time well over 100,000 people have enjoyed making silent retreats under direction of several different Franciscan Directors and Teams, while always enjoying the faithful service of the Franciscan Brothers and the Sisters of St. Elizabeth working with committed lay kitchen and maintenance staff. With retreats filled to capacity, and over 2500 retreatants coming through each year, the Franciscans continue to trust as they did in the beginning. “If God wants us here, things will be arranged, we have only to pray.”
[Based on abstracts from a history of Mount St. Francis Retreat written by Roy Farran for their 30th anniversary.]
1980 to Present
- Over the next 35 years and inspired by the vision of Vatican II many more changes took place at the Mount, specifically in collaborative ministry models. The pioneering work of Sr. Helen Hengel of the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis as a member of the retreat team was followed by other Sisters of St. Louis, including today’s Sr. Geraldine Hagel (2010 - present).
Sadly, due to diminishing numbers the Sisters of St. Elizabeth returned to their Mother House in Humboldt, Saskatchewan in 2000. More lay staff were hired to replace the Sisters who had given 50 years of dedicated service.
As some Franciscan Friars moved on, a few other experiences were pursued by our retreat team. A well trained lay person, Mrs. Norline Johnson, formed part of the team for a number of years (1985 - 1994).
A lay couple, Mariette and Kristoph Dobrowolski, joined the team in the late 1990’s. After theological training and experience obtained with Mount St. Francis they began another retreat centre. A young Friar, Brian Burns, brought another dimension to the ministry at The Mount.
For one year (2003-04) we had only day retreats due to staffing and water safety concerns. With the help of Ms. Brenda McAlpine, (2005-09) and a steady team of Friars, full time retreats have continued since that year.
Our theological vision of the Goodness of God revealed in Jesus Christ modelled by St. Francis of Assisi remains a constant.
Another constant has been the work of our loyal captains and co-captains over these many years. At the same time, upkeep of our well used facilities has been made possible by the generosity of many benefactors. Following the 2003-04 year the retreat buildings were refurbished according to all necessary building codes. Over the past few years new roofs were installed, the chapel seating renovated and a new bell tower built. The Sisters’ convent was renovated to give us a small seminar room and six more bedrooms for diverse groups. Old windows were replaced with more ecologically efficient ones. Finally, extensive improvements were made to extend our parking lot and beautify our grounds.
These improvements include a pole-barn style pavilion built especially for youth endeavours and to accommodate outdoor activities during inclement weather. We are ever grateful to the donors who made these improvements possible. The “piece de resistance” donated in the summer of 2013 has been a bronze statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. It represents the story of his taming of a wolf both outside ourselves and within ourselves.
Over these many years, our staff, past and present, has been most dedicated and flexible to assure the old facilities are still used efficiently.
As was said 35 years ago, “If God wants us here, things will be arranged, we have only to pray.”