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A pandemic and fire — a Squamish nun's perspective on recent turmoil

The Queen of Peace Monastery was in the path of a wildfire while the 14 sisters were self-isolating
Sister Claire Rolf
Sister Claire Rolf.

Sister Claire Rolf says she wouldn't call the fact the Magee Road fire jumped over the Queen of Peace Monastery divine intervention.

"It is hard to say divine intervention when somebody else loses their house. I don't think God meant for those people to lose their houses," she said.

The Upper Squamish Valley reached 203 hectares at its peak and took out the homes of three families on its way, displacing dozens of others,  including the nuns, in its path.

The wildfire didn't completely miss the sisters' property either. Next to the driveway is a square block patch that was burned, likely by a flying cinder, Rolf supposes.

On April 15, just as the Dominican nuns were entering into their 4:30 p.m. prayer, a neighbour came to the door and said to get out as quickly as possible, due to the approaching wildfire.

"Right behind her came the police saying 'You need to evacuate, now,'" recalled Rolf. "It was coming our way and they said it was going about 20 [kilometres]  per hour."

Rolf and some other sisters quickly got their sprinkler system from the basement and took it up to the roof.

Fortunately, a young man,  who is a friend of the monastery, was on-site and offered to stay and finish setting up the sprinkles, keeping the roof wet all that first night.

"Looking back from Squamish and seeing that big column of smoke rising up was worrisome," Rolf said, "I don't think when we were leaving the monastery we realized it was so huge and so fast. It was later on and talking to the other valley people who were evacuated that we began to measure."

Some of the sisters stayed at the St. Joseph's Parish and a few went to Executive Suites Hotel and Resort,  where the Red Cross had put up evacuees.

Knowing that the roof was wet and that the fire crews were battling the fire as best they could was a comfort, Rolf said.

 "We have a beautiful Upper Squamish Valley community. I knew that if our monastery was in danger that people would be coming and helping as much as they could," she said.

"There's a point at which you are powerless so you just await what is going to be the reality, rather than living in one's imagination."

After four days some sisters returned to the monastery, where they didn't have electricity at first, and a couple stayed one more night in town where they could communicate with all those trying to reach them to find out how they were, Rolf said.

Wildfire Squamish
Source: File photo/Elsa Nygard

The COVID-19 complication

Before the fire, the 14 nuns at the monastery had worked out a pandemic routine to keep safe.

"The only way that beast could get in is through the front door, so everything that came through the front door was doused with bleach and we really had worked it out, because we would be like a home for the elderly here, being a conglomerate of people," Rolf said.

Being out of their protective home while evacuated was difficult due to COVID-19, Rolf said, adding the instinct is to hug neighbours who lost their homes.

"We feel such deep compassion for them," she said.

Now back home, the nuns live mostly as they did before the pandemic.

"Our life of prayer and work — we are at home anyways," she said. "Our life is one of praying for the needs of the world and so it has just intensified."

Due to the pandemic, the monastery suspended visits to the facility, which is usually open for visits to the chapel and gift shop, and for overnight retreats.

Visits may start sooner, but they are looking at perhaps not reopening their guest house until the fall at the earliest.

This will be a financial loss to the order, but Rolf said they will be fine and have "lots of veggies in the garden."

The pandemic brings into sharp focus what is essential to life, she added.

"Our relationships, our loved ones; and really simple things can bring joy. A lot of people will be experiencing this as an opportunity to be more reflective and have time to just be with one another — and think about the value of life," she said.

She noted that it is a very hard time for many, including those who are worried about their future and finances.

The orders around the globe too, have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

"There have been deaths and losses in the order around the world," she said.

Words of wisdom

Rolf said her advice for those, religious or not, on making it through this pandemic is to appreciate the little things.

"Life is so precious," she said. "The beauty of the spring — nothing can stop the beauty and love in the world... The present moment is just full of goodness. Spring is happening, in spite of COVID."

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