Tobar Mhuire gets ready for new era after £1.5m facelift

Tobar Mhuire gets ready for new era after £1.5m facelift

11 January 2012 - by JOANNE FLEMING

THE atmosphere in Tobar Mhuire has always been what defines the place. Peaceful, joyful, accepting — the heart of the monastery threatened with closure just a few years ago remains — but it now has a £1.5m facelift.

The Passionist community has been based at their picturesque Crossgar home since 1950. Once called Crossgar House, it has been called home by a variety of occupants, from 19th century landowners, to the British and American armies during the Second World War. However, declining numbers in recent years had meant an uncertain future for the religious community.

Father John Friel C.P. was one of a group of volunteers from the Passionist order who came to Tobar Mhuire over three years ago in a bid to relaunch the centre following the closure of an order in North Belfast.

Officially reopening today, the monastery, which was once a retreat centre by default, now boasts purpose built facilities such as 15 ensuite rooms accommodating up to 30 people, board rooms and conference rooms, an aqua green and glass themed chapel doubling as a concert space, a dining room, modern lounge space, library and sun-room.

Sensitively converted by main architect Paul McStay, areas once open only to members of the community are now open to the public. Father John said the aim was not just to provide a training centre for those entering the Passionist Order, but a place of retreat open to both the curious and anyone of any faith.

“Brian (Brian McKee, Assistant Retreat Director) and I were students here and we remember this lounge as the old wash room, it was awful,” said Father John. “Now it is a warm, comfortable space for people to relax. And some of them are nocturnal people who will be up to three or four in the morning chatting.

“When you look out the window there is also a crucifix on the hill on which to meditate.

“Interior decorator Colin Chestnut chose fabrics in certain colours to be warm and welcoming such as burgundy. The building is full of light and there is a lot of glass, with the message being one of transparency.”

The courtyard of Tobar Mhuire also has its own floodlit Stations of the Cross sculptures, the idea of their religious architect, Brian Quinn, which symbolises how the sacred can be found in all spaces.

“The square represents the market place...where you find people who are suffering, lonely, depressed anxious,” explained Father John. “The fifteenth station is about the resurrection. It is about people finding hope, and how we are worshipping a crucified God who knows what suffering is all about.”

Explaining the various retreats open to members of the public and clergy, such as exploratory weekend retreats, to retreats for people coping with addictions, Brian McKee said it was about putting monasteries back in the heart of the community.

“Monasteries always had a wide appeal, and where were people gravitated to at times of difficulty,” he said. “Monasteries were the first universities, the first hospitals, where people were sent to be educated.

The church is in great need to renewal and it is about being that beacon of hope and energy.”

“A retreat is an opportunity for people who are curious, people who are tired, needing a bit of respite. It provides that little bit of time to reflect on their own life, trying to make sense of it....for some it is an acknowledgement of who they are as people, recognising that they themselves are sacred.

“We had a group of young people in, for instance, and they got to experience the likes of reflexology when they were here. We had five young lads doing yoga, and they said they wouldn’t have thought in a million years they would be having a day like this, but they really enjoyed it. It will hopefully encourage them to take care of themselves.”

Father John added: “These are good kids who sometimes do bad things. Nine times out of 10 in their very early years there will be problems...we are making some attempt to redress that.”

Since being ordained 30 years ago Father John has worked in Belfast, Dublin, Derry and Glasgow, with those who have mental health problems, and as a chaplain in the Maze prison. He is a qualified counselling psychologist following a sabbatical at Boston College and counselling facilities are available in the monastery.

“It is not for the elite,” he explains of their facilities. “We do work with disadvantaged young people and social care groups.

“We are living in an era of disbelief and pessimism. We want to make some attempt to enter into serious, positive relationship with people.

“We have a building fund which local people are still contributing to and just last week we received £10,000 from a donor.”

Outside of their retreat programme, Tobar Mhuire already has a successful concert series underway, and it is starting its 2012 season next month.

“It isn’t all religious music,” said Father John. “We have had well-known folk singers and students in from South Eastern Regional College who had to set up a performance as part of their course, so there was even some heavy metal.”

Tobar Mhuire’s life is also enriched through the work of local volunteers and overseas visitors, with the monastery actively seeking and receiving support from all sides of the community.

Currently reorganising its library stock, which contains books on general spirituality and poetry among its religious texts, are Pamela Cooper, retired from Downpatrick Library, and Geraldine Duffin, retired from Ballynahinch Library Headquarters.

On placement from America is theology graduate Cheryl Rice and psychotherapist Paige Cargioli.

Both are currently helping to organise a youth night at Tobar Mhuire on Sundays at 7pm, starting January 22. Exploring what it means to be a young person of faith, the youth night will feature games, music and pizza.

For more information on the different facilities and retreat options now available at Tobar Mhuire, telephone 028 44830242, email or visit