By: Nuala O Brien
Minsteracres Retreat Centre in Durham was delighted to be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the retreat house with some of the men who provided the labour to convert the old stables block back in the 1960s and their families.
Bishop Seamus officiated at Mass in St Elizabeths's before blessing the building.
Thanks to the unstinting efforts of parishioner Frank McDonald, one of the young apprentices at the time, lots of people joined in the celebrations. During the conversion Frank worked alongside his Uncle Lawrence who was a master joiner. As a result he followed him into the trade and credits the work he did then as the reason he ended up owning his own building services company.
"It was a marvellous turnout," says Frank. "We had tracked down some of the original volunteers as well as the families of some who are no longer with us. My own family and my Uncle Lawrence's wife and son both came. It was a while since they'd been up to Minsteracres and it brought back a lot of memories.
"We were really pleased to see Paul McCallum who was visiting from Perth in Australia. Paul and his wife (from Blackhill) has only been home three or four times since he emigrated but his wife saw the stories about the reunion on Minsteracres' website and they managed to make it to the event during a visit to friends in Scotland."
Minsteracres retreat team member Elisabeth van Dijl who was at the event said: "I was amazed that so many people came and that so many of the visitors rushed to share their memories. There were lots of stories of hard work and high jinks!
"Some of them were children of the volunteers. They said that over the years they had forgotten about Minsteracres and were delighted to see it still going strong. One man said he used to come with the scouts and thought it was in the back of beyond. Of course as an adult he was surprised how close it was!"
Catherine O'Sullivan, whose dad Jim Daly was a joiner, wasn't able to attend the event but sent a message. "Dad spent a lot of time helping at Minsteracres, converting the old stables into the then new retreat house. At the time we lived in Leadgate and as a child I remember him being picked up at teatime after a day's work to spend time working on the new building. He always talked about his time helping out with great regard for the people he worked alongside."
Sadly, Jim died in 2013 aged 84. Catherine says: "Minsteracres was always a much loved place for our family because of the links forged by dad from his involvement with the retreat house conversion."
Stories of being collected straight from shift at the Consett steelworks abound. It seems most of the team gave willingly of their free time at the weekends throughout the years it took to finish the conversion.
Patricia Pollard, whose dad Edwin Rimmer and three uncles were all involved and Eileen Willis on behalf of her dad Martin Regan both remembered that the men would think nothing of coming straight to Minsteracres after work.
"My Dad was a big, strong feller," says Eileen. "He was very popular and I remembered him always whistling. Because of his strength he turned his hand to anything as a general labourer."
Patricia, one of Edwin's six children, says, "My Dad wasn't afraid of hard work. It was marvellous what they did, giving up their spare time."
Both were delighted to meet people they had not seen for years and to go over old memories. For Eileen, there were some surprises. "It turns out I used to go swimming with the sister of one of the women I met here, I'd gone to school with her cousin too but had no idea of the connection!
"It was absolutely wonderful to see the photos of the time and meet people we hadn't seen for years. Everyone was really friendly and got chatting straight away. I loved it! My friend and I are interested in volunteering now so we plan to visit again soon."
Tom Headley and John Gill both remember being set to work in the kitchen helping to prepare meals and clearing up after. Peeling potatoes featured quite highly. They also both remember the couple of weeks they spent as teenagers tarmacking the driveway by hand. "We did everything – even drove the wagons," says Tom. "I remember a roller we used which rightly belonged in Beamish it was so old!"
Tom, John, Frank and others used to stay the whole weekend when they got the chance either sleeping in the flats overlooking the courtyard or in what is now the youth centre, then called Rosary Lodge where there were definitely no frills, not even bathrooms.
Desmond Hughes, then a painter and decorator in his early 30s recalls being more or less in charge of the decorating. "They used to say that we got the nice end of the job when all the hard graft had been done," he says. "The lads who cleared the yard behind deserved a medal. The shifted old tractors, tyres, wheels and trees – you name it!"
Desmond was pleased to see that the care they took had lasted. "We had to prepare the plaster before Sheila Makay painted the murals. We sealed those walls two or three times to make sure that they were sound." In his case, his work for Minsteracres didn't stop with the retreat house. "I went on to do the staircase and other decorating in the main house too," he says.
Everyone who came to the anniversary event was delighted to have taken part. Desmond even brought his grandchildren. Sharon Robson sent an e mail to say, "My family and I had a lovely time reminiscing, followed by a walk around the house and the gardens. The garage on the drive has certainly changed, what a stunning bungalow!"
It's fair to say that we would not be where we are now without the efforts of all these amazing people and we offer them our huge thanks.
Read more about Minsteracres here: www.minsteracres.org