By: Nuala O'Brien
Nuala O'Brien writes from Minsteracres in Durham.
This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of our retreat house to retreatants. That it opened then at all, however, was a small miracle.
The Passionists had arrived at Minsteracres in 1951 intending to convert the old stables to a retreat house straight away, whilst also turning the main house into a house of studies for students preparing for the priesthood.
However, they discovered the main house needed urgent repairs. Extensive dry rot rendered the roof and much of the house uninhabitable and the first small group of resident Passionists were forced to sleep for a while in the ballroom - then the only weather-proof room.
So extensive was the repair needed that the community struggled to meet basic bills for heating and electricity, so all thought of tackling the crumbling stables seemed a pipe dream.
But God had different plans.
Twelve local men approached Minsteracres offering to renovate the stables free of charge in their spare time so long as Minsteracres provided the materials. So began a massive fundraising programme under the leadership of Fr Colum Devine. In time, this grew into the famous Minsteracres garden fetes. Three years later, work finally began on the stables which were by then in a sorry state.
Labourers, solicitors, architects, technicians, engineers, surveyors and designers all gave their services for free. Much of the material was supplied by local builders, Matthew Charlton’s in Hexham being particularly generous. Many individuals also supplied materials, one arriving with a lorry full of radiators which he refused any payment for.
Labourers came principally from Consett and Blackhill, but others joined from Hexham, Tow Law, Ebchester and Newcastle. They represented builders, bricklayers, slaters, plasterers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, decorators, glaziers and men with no particular trade but a willing pair of hands. Many were picked up from the Consett Steel Works after their shifts or from other designated collection points on their days off.
Of course the fact that the men were using their free time to work on the retreat house meant that their families saw a lot less of them during that time. Some however, found a way round that. At recent open days we have met some of the children of the labourers who talked of happy weekends spent roaming the lakes and grounds at Minsteracres while their dads toiled.
Opening the retreat house was another mammoth task, assisted again with generous donations, including help from the Co-op in Newcastle which supplied much of the furnishing on generous payment terms. This generosity continues to this day, with huge support from parishioners and friends helping us to install a lift, replace bathrooms and refurbish bedrooms. We still have a long way to go though. The next phase means knocking down walls and reconfiguring bedrooms on the ground floor, as well as taking out the kitchen to make a new meeting room, and installing a small bar and kitchenette.
In the 50 years the retreat house has been in service it has offered shelter and solace for thousands of people. With your help we hope to continue that service long into the future.
Read more about Minsteracres here: www.minsteracres.org