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Building an quiet oasis

A community of Dominican nuns is building a monastery in Upper Squamish Valley

Sister Claire Marie Rolf sits down in front of the harp, ready to pluck its strings. Her clean, white habit drapes over the bench and her wooden rosary, which is attached to a leather belt, coils in her lap.

The 5 o'clock bell has just rung. Warm light from the sun overlooking the Squamish Valley pours into the makeshift chapel at Mystic Mountain Lodge and the sisters of the Queen of Peace Monastery quietly file into the room. This is their fourth prayer service of the day.

Once at their own seats, the 10 sisters sit in silent mediation. Some bow their heads, others close their eyes and one runs her rosary through her fingers. A flame of a lit candle flickers in the corner of the room. Behind a pulpit made of a tree trunk hangs a wooden carving of Jesus on the cross.

Sister Claire begins to play; soft music fills the space. The nuns rise. Facing each other on either side of the small hall, they start to sing.

Before Sister Claire placed the veil on her head, the Alberta native was a physical education teacher and avid cross-country skier, racing with the Canadian junior team. Her introduction to the Dominican nuns came through her work with L'Arche - an initiative in which people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them share life in a family-like setting.

"I always knew I wanted to do something that would help people. Then I met the Dominicans. There is an urgent need for people who prayed," Sister Claire says while sitting on the porch before the service.

Becoming a nun of the Catholic religious order was not an easy path to travel. At first Sister Claire's family disapproved. Then there was the six years of learning the life and duties of a nun before one can take the solemn vows.

Dominican nuns are a silent order. The Queen of Peace nuns only speak for two hours a day, after supper. Their lives are devoted to silent prayer and they take a threefold vow - chastity, poverty and obedience. The quiet allows one to reflect on the teachings, Sister Claire explained.

"The silence is a resting place," she said. "It is a fullness, not a lonely place or emptiness."

She started her life with the church in France at an 800-year-old monastery in Toulouse. In Canada, there is a single Dominican monastery in Quebec. Sister Claire dreamt of bringing the Dominican life to Western Canada.

So in 1999, spurred by Sister Claire, nuns from different monasteries across the United States gathered in Rosemary Heights in Surrey. Two years later, the sisters moved to a home in Fort Langley.

Little more than a year ago, the nuns were on the road again, this time to the Upper Squamish Valley. They bought 82 acres to accommodate their growing community. And finally, Sister Claire's dream is taking root.

"We are building a monastery that will accommodate 20 sisters," she said.

On a lush green hillside that looks out over Squamish Valley and onto the Tantalus Range, the nuns are building a 23,000-square-foot monastery. The West Coast post-and-beam structure will include a chapel, library, artisan workshops and arts and baked goods store.

The monastery will also include a retreat for people of all faiths and backgrounds. By the end of the project there will be 10 rooms for guests. There will also be walking trails and organic vegetable gardens. It's meant to be an oasis of peace where people can take a time out from a busy, noisy, techno-centric world, Sister Claire said. Yet like most developments, money is needed.

"We haven't made it with cookies and art sales," Sister Claire says with a smile.

The sale of the nuns' Langley property has helped cover some costs, but Sister Claire estimates the nuns still need to find $3 million. Although the monastery received the blessing of the Archbishop of Vancouver, Dominican monasteries are economically autonomous. They don't receive stipends from the Order, the Archdiocese or the Vatican.

Throughout the province's history, nuns have helped lay the foundation of B.C.'s public culture, said Paul Burns, a professor of religion and humanities at Quest University. They founded many of the B.C.'s first schools and hospitals, including some of Vancouver's medical facilities - St. Paul's, St. Vincent's and Mount Saint Joseph hospitals.

Traditionally, Dominicans are famous as being educators, Burns said. The Queen of Peace Monastery will fill a vacuum left by the Order of the convent of Our Lady of the Cenacle, which until 1996 ran retreats in Shaughnessy in Vancouver.

"I think monasteries in Buddhism and Catholic (religions) play a very critical role," Burns said. "The role will change through the course of history."

Squamish Valley is a beautiful place, Sister Claire said, a place the nuns are happy to call home.

"We just want to be a loving, contemplative presence to the people of Squamish," she said.

The monastery is a registered charity. For more information or to donate, visit www.dominicannunsbc.ca, email peacenun.commun@xplornet.ca or call (604) 815-0993.

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