The Catholic School of Evangelization in St. Malo, Manitoba is a camp and retreat centre less than an hour from Winnipeg. It provides full week summer camps (July & August) and weekend winter camps (February) for English and French youth ages 8 and up, and is available for groups to rent privately as well. In its past it had hosted a small number of year-round students in a discipleship formation program, as well as organizing an outreach team to go do mission work in various communities and Catholic parishes around the province of Manitoba, but those programs are currently not operating.
The facility has fourteen air conditioned rooms, each with anywhere from two to ten bunk beds, and at its maximum capacity can sleep around eighty people. An older yet functional commercial kitchen allows for meal preparation, and a modern chapel provides a setting for spiritual nourishment as well. Opportunities for outdoor activities are numerous, with the large backyard and an expansive school field next door. Just a short walk across the highway one finds a Lourdes grotto on the river bank, along with a provincial park with a beautiful beach on St. Malo Lake.
My family has had many positive retreat and camp experiences at the CSE. When they posted in the spring of 2018 that they were looking for a new Missionary Family to take up residence there, both my wife and I heard the call independently of each other. Upon discussing it together, we were somewhat surprised to learn that the other was open to it. We discerned (that was a big process, which I won't get into detail about here), applied, went through some interviews, had background checks done, and were chosen by the CSE’s director in consultation with the staff and board. We've committed to serve through the end of June 2020.
We have a house in Winnipeg, and the perfect renters came across our path in a way only explainable by the existence of a God who orchestrates events to facilitate obedience to his will.
In addition to hearing this call to serve as Missionary Family, we also heard the call to have another child (our eighth) …. because this wouldn’t be hard enough already! We answered that call too, and Raphael was born on March 30, 2019. We had him baptized here in the CSE’s chapel on Easter Sunday to cap off the annual Triduum Retreat there. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first baptism ever to happen in the chapel since it was built nearly twenty years ago. He's probably also the first baby ever to take a bath in their kitchen.
The Missionary Family serves two roles for the CSE. The prime duty is to be a welcoming presence for retreat groups throughout the off-season by preparing the facility for their arrival and supporting them in their time in the building. We are not expected to do the cooking or cleaning for the groups - we simply stock the washrooms, unlock the doors, show them around, confirm they understand the commercial dishwashing procedures, be available for support as they use the facility, and do a final walkthrough to ensure all is in good order when they leave.
The secondary duty is general upkeep of the building and yard, requiring a total of 20 collective hours of work every week. The CSE staff budget is slim, so a formal custodian isn’t possible, and there is an added benefit for security and insurance to have people living on site. Snowblowing the parking lot is of prime importance in our Canadian winters, and rooms need a fresh coat of paint from time to time, but beyond just maintenance we are also doing some proactive beautification. Our eldest daughter is a gifted artist and has been using her painting skills to adorn the doors of each dorm room with a painting of the saint for whom the room is named.
In return for providing this service, the family is allowed to live rent-free at the CSE, occupying a few of the rooms. There are ten people in our family, and we chose to live in the older suite of four bedrooms on the second floor. These are more removed from the main common areas of the facility, making for a quieter environment to have our young children in when there are groups here.
The summer is the CSE’s peak camp season, and they need us to vacate temporarily to make room for the campers. They allow us to keep our personal items in one locked bedroom, and they have a storage area we can use as well. At the time of this writing, we are living away from the CSE while the summer camps program is running. A nearby family we know through mutual acquaintances had planned a European vacation, spanning exactly when we needed to be out of the CSE. They have a small hobby farm with laying hens requiring daily care, and our availability to house-sit was as good for this family as it was for us. Checkmate, atheists!
In a few weeks, camps will end and we’ll be back there for another year… and after that, who knows? God seems to light our path only in small increments.