The funeral of Fr Luke Magee recently led inevitably to reflecting on the changes at Minsteracres over the years.
As former rector Fr Mark White said of Fr Luke, he was a great innovator and one of the changes he made would seem unremarkable now, but was ground-breaking in the mid 1970s: he brought three sisters of St Paul the Apostle to live and work at Minsteracres.
Sr Dympna Smith, at just 37 the youngest of the three, remembers, “Minsteracres would have been the first place to have men and women working together. It was a huge step. Other men’s congregations had tried it, but didn’t succeed.”
Other congregations however, were not blessed with the foresight and determination of three such people as Sr Dympna, Fr Luke and Fr Mark Whelehan. “Sister Mary Bridget and I in particular wanted to integrate. Some of the men were less happy though and they moved on quite quickly. The ones who stayed were on board with what we were doing.” says Sr Dympna.
“Fr Mark was in America when we arrived, and didn’t return for another year, but he and Fr Luke were both great progressives and were determined to make a go of retreats at Minsteracres.”
And in the subsequent 27 years of her stay here that was exactly what they did, developing and running hugely successful parish and school retreats together and fundraising through the famous summer fayres and other fondly remembered events.
Faced with grim times in the 1980s following the closure of the steel works in Consett, they worked with Andrew O’Connor, manager of the local Manpower Services Commission who set up job creation schemes for unemployed people teaching them skills to get them back into work. “You would find four or five coaches coming up to bring people here. The place was buzzing! And Andrew O’Connor – what a man!” she says.
The friendships forged through hard work have endured and during a recent visit Sr Dympna and Fr Mark met up with Margaret and Tracey Barnes, their first two volunteers, to reminisce.
Sr Dympna, a farmer’s daughter from County Monaghan in Ireland, became the lynchpin of the volunteer service, and many of Minsteracres volunteers still recount stories of how they were recruited by her.
Even her own rural childhood didn’t quite prepare her for conditions at Minsteracres, “It was really rural,” she recalls. She arrived in the north east from a teaching job in Sunbury on Thames in Middlesex to a stark contrast.
First there was the weather, “I remember going into Consett shortly after I arrived in December in a pair of flimsy shoes. When I got out of the car I simply couldn’t stand up! The shoes were ruined.”
Then there was Minsteracres itself, “It was so bare!” It is fair to say it lacked the feminine touch.
Reflecting on the changes on a recent visit, Sr Dympna says, “What strikes me is the space, the freedom, the care for the earth and the beauty of the place.
“It’s a people’s retreat house now – open to everyone. It began in my day, but it has almost exploded now!
“Everywhere you look you can see the commitment of people. There’s an openness, and what’s lovely is it’s all done with such generosity. I see it as a big, holistic centre: whoever or whatever you are, there’s a welcome for you.”
There is no doubt that Sr Dympna, Fr Mark, Fr Luke and others in the community laid the foundations for what you see today, and there are plenty who remember the hard work and love that went into creating it. “On the day of Luke’s funeral I didn’t get to eat a bite until just as we were leaving – there were so many people to see and catch up with. It was amazing!”