Centre for Spirituality & Social Ministry: 1970-2004

Retreat Centre

In 1971, the traditional works of the MSC at Douglas Park had almost ceased. The apostolic school was closed, the brothers’ training centre was also closed, and the novices and postulants had been scattered between Kensington, Canberra, and Croydon in Melbourne. The old dormitories had been divided into thirty seven rooms, but they were empty. Even the farm had been cut right back to a very small operation. There was now a very small MSC presence at St Mary’s Towers.

At the beginning of 1972, St Mary’s Towers began a new life as a retreat centre. It was decided to concentrate on prayer weekends and retreats for laity and for older school students, because there were many former convents already that were being converted to prayer centres for religious. These would not be the first retreats for lay people at Douglas Park: back in the 1930’s there had been a series of retreats for laymen. In 1972 there were a few weekend retreats for year twelve students from some Sydney schools, but planning and administration was still rudimentary. The centre was also used for annual retreats for MSC, and for an MSC renewal programme. In 1974, Fr Leo Hill was appointed superior with the task of developing the retreat centre. He advertised in parishes and schools with great success. Lay people came to weekend retreats, school groups came usually for two days (one group Monday Tuesday, another ThursdayFriday), and in the school holidays religious men and women came for their annual retreats. During the Christmas holidays, there were retreats and renewal programmes for MSC members. In that first year, about 2000 people attended programmes at St Mary’s Towers. The fees charged more than covered the daily running costs, but could not also pay for continual upgrading of the buildings the province bore that cost.

The centre could cater for fifty adults, another forty more rudimentary rooms were suitable for school students. Old school rooms were rearranged and refurbished as a new chapel and discussion rooms, laundry and washing facilities were improved, a big effort was put into improving the gardens. School groups were usually of about 40, but on one occasion there were 120 students at the retreat! There was also an agreement with some schools for them to use some of the land for school camps.

In 1976 Fr Harvey Edmiston succeeded Fr Hill as superior. He began to develop his plan for MSC Spirituality Services, which would be an overall plan for the delivery of retreats and spiritual guidance in several MSC houses, by the MSC priests who were now trained or being trained in spirituality as formators and retreat directors and spiritual counsellors. St Mary’s Towers would be a major centre for this. The emphasis moved to adult retreats, with resident directors. The first non MSC directors were Sisters Rita Hanley in 1978 and Diana Woods in 1979. Douglas Park was also a centre for the MSC Renewal team, and for the newly formed Religious Education Team, which visited the MSC schools to give retreats and conducted retreat weeks for members of their staffs at Douglas Park.

St Mary’s Towers has become an important centre for spirituality. The centre was so well known and highly regarded that it was too busy, and the offering had to be cut back in 1984. The directors continually refine their offerings as the needs of the community in each generation become clear. The offerings have included week long directed and guided retreats, 30 day retreats, Heart of Life institutes, Life’s Journey retreats, retreats for special groups: men’s retreats, spirituality for the older person.

Fr Vyn Bailey prayed and gave guidance in Christian Yoga at his Ashram in the surrounding bush. It is not difficult to meet one’s God in the peace of the surroundings, the quiet of the prayer rooms, the gentle guidance of the staff, and the kind hospitality of the community.

One person wrote at the end of the Life’s Healing Journey retreat: “When I analyse my experience at Douglas Park I find that three elements make it an encouraging experience: first, the profound silence and the peace that this creates within the House; then the professionalism of your own personal direction, which always seems to ring bells in my own experience; and thirdly, the care and love which the staff give for our accommodation and hospitality needs.”

Lay Community

As St Mary’s Towers developed as a retreat centre, people began to appreciate its potential as a home for a prayerful community and as a base for other ministries. In the late 1970s,the Provincial Council considered several ideas about establishing a Living Christian Community at Douglas Park. In 1976 the Tertiary Catholic Federation of Australia began looking to it as a place of retreat, after experience with Fr Michael Fallon, chaplain at University of New South Wales. He was working with youth from the university, using Douglas Park as a place for retreat and reflection. They held two weeks of reflection and discussion there at the end of 1977, meditating on the Gospels and the MSC Documents of Renewal, developing the idea of an association of laity who would live as a community with a simple life, not as celibate or monastic religious, but as lay people fully engaged in their ordinary life of work or study. The community developed in Sydney around Coogee and Randwick, but they held monthly retreat weekends at Douglas Park, and some longer periods of discernment there.

In 1988, Fr Frank Andersen presented to the Provincial Council a proposal for a lay community at St Mary’s Towers. His community would be modelled on Taize in France, a core community of young adults who would live simply, a praying community that would invite others to come and share with them. In liaison with Catholic Youth Services of the Sydney Archdiocese, he saw that this community could also take up a ministry of social recovery for young people, perhaps based on the farm. He came to see that St Mary’s Towers should not be a set of separate communities (main MSC group, novitiate, retreat house, lay community), but a single community united by a life of common prayer, hospitality and social outreach. Using ideas from “Structure for Live-in Associates” previously developed by Fr Edmiston, a small group of interested members refined their plans and at the beginning of 1989 established the community that was to be known as the Kindly Light Community.

The group of seven lay people with Fr Andersen remained at Douglas Park for two years, making use first of the Ark and some parts of the community house. They developed a common life of prayer and community decision making, worked to help the rest of the St Mary’s Towers community and at various other tasks to bring in revenue to the common fund. They welcomed forty five visitors in their first year. However, little progress was made on a ministry of social recovery. There were suggestions that the group might also host a spiritual year for young people between school and university.

Some members left during or at the end of the first year, and the community disbanded at the end of 1990, though there were still other people attracted to it and keen to join. Some years later the Cana community also negotiated to live at Douglas Park, but this eventually did not happen.

At the same time as the Kindly Light community was formed, another project of social recovery was being planned. Fr Edmiston had discussed using part of the property as a rehabilitation village for recovering drug addicts, in partnership with St Vincent’s Hospital. After his death, the project was resurrected in 1988 as the Edmiston Village, to be constructed on land between the old Mt Keira Road (Mitchell place), the new Mt Keira Road, and the new freeway. There was to be a peppercorn lease.

Later negotiation moved the site to near the gates on the old main avenue, with some land donated and some leased. This project did not come to fruition; necessary government grants were not forthcoming, and there was also some hesitation from nearby residents. There had earlier been some social outreach by the St Mary’s Towers community, with men from Ozanam House in Melbourne visiting for extended stays.

Although the attempt to establish a formal lay community was short lived, from the 1970’s the community at St Mary’s Towers was a mixed community, with MSC priests and brothers, religious sisters and lay people. It has stayed like this ever since. There is a permanent community of lay and religious, and people who have the need for some time to recover from problems in their lives have found a temporary haven of peace in the community.

A Rural Catholic Community Centre. The Farm

SIR Thomas Mitchell’s Parkhall was a country house on a property of 4500 acres. His attempts at encouraging farmer tenants were unsuccessful, and the property was largely untended, though he grew grapes and stone fruit trees. Dr Jenkins continued to cultivate vineyards up on cemetery hill, sowed other crops, and raised prize winning cattle. He also planted the avenue of trees along the avenue leading from the main gate up to the house.

The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart understood that a working farm would be a bonus on their new property. Perhaps the community would be self sufficient, and the farm could also supply Kensington monastery and the other houses in Sydney. A water pump was installed at the beginning, upgraded in 1922, and a few years later drilling for bore water was also undertaken. In 1911, there were 13 horses, 17 cattle, 422 sheep (they sheared 262), and 13 pigs. There were also poultry, beehives, a few fruit trees, and a vegetable garden. In 1918 it was decided to get rid of the sheep, because the province could not afford the new fencing that was needed. There was also concern about the deteriorating condition of the stables and dairy, but all of this became insignificant in the last days of 1922 when a major fire swept up the avenue destroying the pine trees, threatened the main buildings, and destroyed stables and harness rooms, worker’s rooms, haysheds and hay, the sawmill, silo, oil engine and tools and much timber. The farm had to be rebuilt. Electricity was connected and a traction engine purchased in 1926 27.

A dairy herd was purchased in 193 1. At that time there were more than one thousand poultry, the farm was producing mutton and beef for the community, fruit trees were producing. The farm could supply Kensington with meat and butter. But even this early there was concern that if the work of the farm became too demanding, it could interfere with the regular life of the religious rule. Newspaper stories and reports in various years tell of a well managed, self sufficient property. There was a big poultry farm that won prizes at the local show. Christmas gifts of dressed birds were sent to other MSC houses and to benefactors.

The dairy provided finance. The brothers slaughtered stock for meat. There was a ten acre orchard producing fresh fruit, and one year enough for a ton of jam! There were beehives, a large vegetable garden, a grain silo. With all this went a large laundry, tailor shop, bootmaker. In 1952 the property received an award as the most improved private property in the state.

Around 1950 there were 50 cattle and 170 sheep, a few horses, and crops of corn, lucerne, barley, oats and millet. In the 1950s the lucerne paddocks were irrigated and stock numbers could be increased.

In 1960 the dairy was modernised and restocked, and within ten years the annual cheque from the milk board was $11000. Irrigation meant that the land could carry a good number of stock. However the Provincial Council was worried about the constant demands of the farm on the time of the smaller number of brothers now in residence, and it decided to phase out all of the farm work except for the dairy. But priorities were changed and the dairy herd and the milk quota were sold and the farm changed to beef, which would further lessen the constant daily work. Drought and fire caused the herd to be sold in 1978, but the property was restocked a couple of years later. A lay farm manager was employed later. Farming is now a much smaller operation than it was in the early days.

The Coal Mine, The Freeway

Prospecting for coal under the Douglas Park land took place in the 1920’s. By 1960 AIS had determined to begin a mine, and in 1965 purchased 234 acres for their base. Tower Colliery opened in 1975.

The company has always dealt fairly with the MSC community, and has contributed to improvements, especially for the chapel. It seemed that the MSCs would also benefit from royalties on the coal mined from under the property, possibly about $150 000 per year. But the NSW government cancelled royalties to private owners.

At the other end of the property, the Department of Main Road resumed 93 acres for the F6 freeway in 1974, in the process cutting off the northern end of the property. These negotiations were quite difficult. The old mile long main avenue was cut short, with the entrance gates moved closer to the house.

The property is still large enough that the noise from the freeway causes minimum disruption to the quiet of the retreat house.

The Parish

In the time of Dr Jenkins, Nepean Towers was a centre for Anglican worship, with eighty people attending Sunday service conducted by a clergyman from Appin. With the arrival of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, the worship conducted at St Mary’s Towers was that of the Catholic liturgy. Some times more than others, St Mary’s Towers was a centre for the local Catholic parishioners.

An apostolic schoolboy in the 1930s wrote to his parents that they attended two Masses each Sunday, the second being celebrated mainly for the benefit of the local people. In 1973, the Picton parish priest asked the MSC to take care of the Menangle and Douglas Park sections of his parish. Fr Stan Tyler took care of the parish duties, and Fr Tom Whitty also came to help soon after. Their responsibilities for the district were increased, when they took charge of the parish of Appin, which included Menangle, Douglas Park and Wilton; the parish church was St Bede’s in Appin, but Douglas Park was the centre of most activity.

Involvement with Appin and Menangle ceased at the end of 1987, but St Mary’s Towers remains the Mass centre for Douglas Park and Wilton. At various times the old chapel has been refurbished. A major upgrade is taking place at the present time, with builders building, painters painting, electricians rewiring and installing air-conditioning. The parishioners are raising funds for this.

The small but very close knit and friendly parish community meets for Sunday Mass, and often stays on to yarn afterwards. The congregation is growing as many young families are moving into the district; new members join the community, babies are baptised, and now the church is nearly full every Sunday.
Click here for more information regarding the Parish Mass Centre.

The Cemetery

There is one more community at St Mary’s Towers: that of deceased members of the Australian MSC province buried in the cemetery. There was an old cemetery on the hill behind the buildings in the time of Mitchell and Jenkins, but the headstones are gone from there. The MSC cemetery is the last resting place for most of the members of the province, just on two hundred, and those buried elsewhere are remembered there. Many members come to pay their last respects, and visitors remember old friendships as they wander among the graves.

To explore the cemeteries connected to St. Mary’s Towers, click here.

Douglas Park Township

When people speak of St. Mary’s Towers they often just refer to “Douglas Park”, but this actually is the name of the neighbouring township, the history of which is deeply interwoven with The Tower’s and its people.

To explore the local township of Douglas Park, click here.