Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Herne Bay parish has been taking annual holiday retreat weeks at the Passionist Monastery at Minsteracres, Co. Durham since 1963 but some of our congregation may be a little unsure of what that involves.  We decided to ask one of the regular retreat participants what actually happens there and why it appeals to her.

Q What made you first decide to go on a retreat to Minsteracres?

 A For several years I had sat in church  and listened to the announcement of a week away in August to Minsteracres but I had no idea where that was.  My only experience of a retreat was a silent one held over a weekend when I was about 14 in the convent attached to the school I attended.  I found not talking really difficult and wrote the longest letter to my Mother she had ever received.  So in my mind, I was not cut out for making a retreat.

However talking to a couple of people who did go to Minsteracres made me change my mind.  They described the friendly relaxed atmosphere of the place and assured me it was a happy experience.  When I learnt that Minsteracres was in County Durham, that absolutely clinched it for me as I am a Geordie by birth and know how beautiful that area is.

Q How many times have you been to Minsteracres?

 A 2016 was my 13th visit and I hope to continue for many more years.  In fact, most of the people who go on retreat there tend to return year after year.  It becomes an important part of your life and age and infirmity tend to be the main reasons why people sadly cease to be able to continue to go there.  However the spirit of the place remains with them.

Q Describe a typical morning on retreat.

 A We start with morning prayers at 8.30am on most days, so a friend sleeping in the room next door   knocks to check I’m awake.  I sleep more soundly at Minsteracres than at home, probably because the pace is so much calmer than my usual week and I relax more.

We sit in a circle not in rows so it feels more inclusive.  Father Mark or Deacon Barry always give a reflective comment before our communal prayers and it is a peaceful start to the day.

At 9am it’s breakfast and on the days porridge is on the menu most of us grab a bowl and join the queue.  Minsteracres porridge is the best I’ve tasted, nicer than my own!

Each year there is a different theme for the retreat talks – in 2016 it was “Blessed are the Merciful” to celebrate the Year of Mercy.  There is a daily talk at 10am, sometimes in the chapel or in the exquisite setting of the ballroom, led by one of the Community.  The format varies each day but is always imaginative and leads to lots of discussion both in the session and at coffee afterwards.  The atmosphere is so peaceful and sympathetic that people feel a closeness that doesn’t necessarily come with just sitting in a church service.

Coffee and homemade biscuits or cakes is at around 11am and if it’s sunny we often sit outside or if you fancy being quiet the magnificent grounds are perfect for a walk.

Then we have Mass at noon in my favourite place – the chapel – with its bay windows overlooking the beautiful Tyne Valley; a perfect backdrop to the altar and crucifix.  In August the swifts and swallows swoop past and I marvel at God’s creation.

At one o’clock it’s lunchtime.  The food is marvellous at Minsteracres and the cooks are fantastic.  So much is homemade and lots of the fruit and vegetables are grown in the Peace Garden in the grounds.

Q What happens in the afternoons?

 A That is the time for the holiday outings by coach on each day, except Sunday and Friday to give the driver a needed rest for the journey to and from Herne Bay.

Every year there is a varied selection of destinations to try to have wide appeal.  Minsteracres is ideally placed for visiting the Roman Wall sites, the market towns of Hexham and Corbridge, Newcastle, the beautiful Northumbrian Heritage Coast and various National Trust and English Heritage properties.  On a Thursday we have a full day’s outing.  This year we spent a most enjoyable day at Beamish Open Air Museum in glorious sunshine and last year we visited the market town of Alnwick with its famous castle and gardens.

Q How do you spend the evenings?

A There is another tasty cooked meal at 6.30pm, then after communal night prayers in the chapel

people are free  to do as they wish. By far the most popular pursuit is buying a drink ( or two) from the nightly bar and sitting chatting in the lounge until sleep calls them.  I usually turn in about 10pm but I’m one of the earlier ones!

Q What is the accommodation like?

 A  Most rooms have twin beds in but if you are a single person (as many of us are) you have a room to yourself without paying a single supplement as at most hotels.  The bedrooms are simply but nicely furnished and have washbasins.  Some people are put off from going to Minsteracres because the rooms aren’t ensuite but I feel they are missing out on a wonderful experience.  This year the facilities have been renewed and there are 12 lovely bathrooms on the second floor each containing toilet, washbasins and shower so it’s having your own facilities just a stone’s throw from your bedroom.  Last year they installed a lift, so climbing stairs is no longer an issue for anyone.

 Q Why is Minsteracres such a special place for you?

 A It’s hard to put into words how much I love being there. I feel as if I’m coming home when the coach turns through the narrow arched entrance (we all clap!) and travels up the mile long drive past the magnificent Californian Redwood trees which are over 150 years old.  The Community come out to greet our coach and you know it is going to be another wonderful week.

 I’m an outdoor person and so walking in the grounds (over 100 acres) is perfect.   I love it when we have a communal spiritual outdoor session;  sometimes a reflective walk through the shrubbery or mass in the Peace Garden.  Every year the hardworking volunteers make the grounds more accessible for walking and 2 years ago Father Mark led us to lakes I didn’t know existed in the grounds.  As the house was once a stately home, I feel privileged to be in such wonderful surroundings.  It sounds over the top but there is a spirit of love, friendship and closeness to God that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, even on pilgrimages abroad.  I would love other people who haven’t been to Minsteracres to come and share the experience.

Reprinted, with kind permission, from Herne Bay’s parish magazine Platea