My Experience in Cold Ash- England
Cold Ash Centre is a Franciscan Retreat Centre which offers retreats of Confirmation mainly to the teens from various schools and parishes. It also remains open to the individuals or groups of adults who wish to have a moment of rest or retreat in the Centre.
The Centre is run by two Franciscan congregations: the Franciscans Friars Minor (OFM) and the FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary). It is a purely international fraternity composed of Fr. Daniel Convery, OFM (Scotland), Fr. Antony Jukes, OFM (England), Sr Kumari, FMM (SirLanka), Sr Sonia, FMM (Lebanon) and Sr Tien, FMM (Vietnam). Different background and nationalities do not matter, what matters is the team work which makes us bear witness to the gospel as Franciscan brothers and sisters. As a volunteer for two months, I, Br. Jean Damascene, OFM (Rwanda), since June 2nd became part of the team and also experienced this lovely and welcoming environment where I felt at home with my brothers and sisters. This made our guests wonder whether I truly had been there for such a short period of time. Some could not even understand how it could be possible that we understand and respect each other very well.
Cold Ash Centre Activities
Being a Retreat Centre, the central activity of Cold Ash is to offer retreats under various themes depending on the group. For example we have “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit” for the Confirmation group; “Identity” for post confirmation group; “Christian Identity” for the School groups and “Lord, what do you want me to do?” which was meant for the Franciscan Youth Gather. In fact, once there is group that has booked for the retreat, the team has to seat together and find out the suitable theme for that particular group, to plan how the sessions will conducted and to choose who will be coordinating all activities. This means that there are as many meetings for preparation as are the groups to be hosted. The most challenging activity.
The centre has a small petty farm. It follows that these animals need to be taken care of and so each member (Cold Ash team member) takes his/her turn to look after them. Not only do we feed the animals we also talk to them and pray with them so as to express our Franciscan spirituality, namely the love of creation. To be told about how we communicate with these pets would sound like a legend as many people today cannot understand how Francis talked to the wolf and the birds, but personally I experienced this whereby the three geese joined us to listen to Fr. Danny's homily, and then left when the homily was over and again they came back for the final blessing. This reminded me again the story of the good shepherd who knows his sheep and whose voice they follow.
Generally, all the animals we have are very friendly and are able to understand our language and respond to it by doing what we ask them to do. The most amazing among them is Ben (Danny's dog). Ben knows that all animals and birds are good and so he can stay peacefully with any of them, he is also friendly to the children who come to the centre and he expresses it by bringing some of his balls or toys to play with them.
Besides taking care of this small farm which grows daily, there is also keeping our environment clean and worthy living. With the hard work of each team member, our compound has become good-looking and a beautiful; all the pets are well protected from any kind of danger as they stay in the fenced pasture. In addition, the bushes which surrounded the centre have been all cut down. Thanks be to the effort of each one of us towards our environmental care.
As eat and work together, we also have also to remember that all our energies and success spring from God and thus we offer them back in our daily office, adoration and Eucharistic celebration, which we do always in our Chapel or at times with the elderly community in St Gabriel's.
Keeping in mind that Cold Ash started with a lot of difficulties with regards to finance, totally depending on the moneys from the provincials of the two congregations, currently the centre has managed to be self reliant as it is able to cater for its running cost, and has attracted many retreatants to be best Retreat Centre. This would indicate the big step that the initiators of the project have made.
After hearing the feedback from eight groups (about 213 people) which came during my stay here in Cold Ash since 2nd June 2013, I strongly recommend that this project continues because it has become a source of joy and discovery to the youth who always expressed their gratitude to what they received from us, by booking for their retreat next year again. Some have already come back within these two months; a real proof of appreciation. In fact, the Bishop himself has booked the place in April next year for the Confirmation group of the whole Diocese. This gives me hope that in the next two years we will have more girls and boys who will express their wish to become religious (Franciscans): new offspring for religious vocation!
It is true that the project cannot run without somebody to run it, and looking at the weight of the work done it requires many people. Therefore after hearing the willingness of the FMM provincial to support the project by sending a new sister replacing Sr Sonia who will be going for her studies in September, it would be better if the OFM provincial for English Province would also send another friar or even two if possible to Cold Ash since Fr. Antony will be going to Canterbury for his new apostolate. I know that parish projects are good, but this goes beyond the parish level as the centre is open to all the parishes. I finally thank you for the good thought of involving the friars from our province to come and experience what goes on in Cold Ash. Indeed I also thank my provincial, Fr Carmelo, OFM for having chosen me to be the first friar to visit this wonderful project. My wish is to this relationship which already began between the Province of St Francis in Africa and the English-Ireland Province.
By Br Karanganwa Jean Damascene, OFM on the 30th July 2013.