Every now and then someone joins us at Minsteracres for a while to live with the community and last September we were blessed with the arrival of 19 year old Barbara Rindsfusser, a gap year student from Germany.

Barbara came to us from a year on a Catholic Youth programme at home. “In Germany it is common for students to do a social year, a bit like a gap year in Britain, but with paid work,” she explains. She loved it, “I met so many lovely people, including my boyfriend Pascal.”

She had wanted to come to England, partly to improve her (now excellent) English. She had met some friends in France who were friends of Andrew Patterson, vicar at Whitley Chapel near Hexham, and his wife Carol and they invited her to come and stay with them.

“We started looking around for places near them where I could work and found Minsteracres. I saw the aerial video on the website and thought ‘I want to be there!’

“I translated the term ‘retreat centre’ and couldn’t quite understand what it was.” She says it is still difficult to explain to her friends, so she tells them, “When you go there, everyone is welcoming – it feels like home. It’s wonderful to arrive up the drive with the big trees and the great atmosphere.”

Barbara has embraced the experience and thrown herself into whatever task was needed. Along with stints of painting, tiling (a first for her) and general cleaning, she has mostly been found in the dining room. “I’m surrounded by food, and every now and then allowed to eat it!” she jokes.

“I didn’t expect running around carrying plates and being friendly all the time to be so exhausting. In my social year I was with teenagers all the time. It’s been nice to meet older people who are interested in you and what you want to do with your life. It’s really nice when people appreciate what you do for them too.”

Barbara moved in full time in December. “It was just more convenient, particularly as there is no public transport here and I relied on people to drive me here.” She has enjoyed being a member of the community “It’s more like being part of the family. Fr Mark is like my grandfather overseas. I love the internationality of the place. I have been able to speak to Fr Aloyce in German as it’s a language spoken in Tanzania where he is from.”

Barbara Mar x 5 resized Fr Jeroen presents Barbara with gifts from friends and colleagues

This isn’t to say that her expectations of the place prepared her for her stay. “I thought at first, they’re all really old! But quickly I noticed that they’re all really fun too. Coming back after Christmas was like coming home,” she says.

She adds a message for Minsteracres community, “I’ve never been that far from my family for so long before. Thank you for making it so easy for me.”

Barbara’s mum and dad, visiting for the first time to take her home with them, add their own thanks, “We’re very grateful to meet all the lovely people our daughter has been telling us about for the last few months here at Minsteracres. Since our first step in the door we have felt the warm and welcoming atmosphere of this place. Barbara has been really happy here, and she has gained a lot of precious experience. We would like to encourage more young people to come and experience that too.”

Barbara Mar x 1 resized Barbara with her mum and dad

The enthusiasm and warmth she feel for the community is reciprocated. Fr Mark, honorary granddad, says he’ll miss his ‘youth’, “She keeps me going,” he says.

Sr Therese is full of praise, “She’s fitted in so well. She is generous, kind and caring and full of life and vitality. I really admire someone of her age coming to live with a group of people so much older.

“Her presence has been a wonderful gift, not just because for the work she has done, but for the huge contribution she has made without being aware of it – she can join in on any level. She has been a wonderful example to us and we’re going to miss her desperately.”

As for Barbara, she plans to return to Germany to study social work and hopes eventually to work with young people. She will be back in the summer for a couple of week’s holiday with a friend, but in the meantime, her parents have arrived to spend a week at Minsteracres visiting some of the local landmarks before taking her home.