BY ERIC LINDBERG
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER
Scents of burning wood, sage and sweet financial freedom filled the air at La Casa de Maria yesterday, where leaders of the retreat and conference center celebrated a three-year fundraising effort by burning its mortgage.
The 26-acre parcel of land tucked away in the hills of Montecito has long been a place for spiritual renewal. But in recent years, a 7-acre slice of the oak-shaded retreat had been plagued by a $4 million debt.
Until recently, that is. Through generous donations from friends, neighbors and the community, La Casa de Maria fought its way out from under the financial cloud in just three years.
“We are ecstatic,” said Stephanie Glatt, director of the center. “It’s a miracle. We’re preserving it for years to come.”
As dozens looked on, she stood on the steps of the chapel and held the mortgage high. With a slow, liberating rip, Glatt tore the document in half before approaching a fire pit and tossing the scraps in among the embers.
“We made it,” she said, describing what the act symbolized. “It’s a victory. We did this together.”
After a brief program that included dance performances, visitors were asked to write down something they had recently completed in their lives on a small strip of paper. Following the ceremonial burning of the mortgage, many approached the fire to feed their own scraps to the flames.
Led by The Sisters of The Immaculate Heart, La Casa de Maria is welcoming to all comers. Many nonprofit groups choose to hold retreats or conferences at the center, Glatt said.
It’s essentially a place of peace and respite, she said, an escape from the concrete jungle that allows visitors to reconnect with themselves and each other.
Steve Jacobsen, executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara, attested to the rejuvenating qualities of the retreat.
As the former pastor of Goleta Presbyterian Church, he used to commonly schedule trips to the center.
“People went away healed, empowered, transformed,” he said. “…The healing power of this ground and this heritage is tangible in so many ways.”
So when the retreat started struggling financially in the early 2000s, he said the burden of debt began to weigh heavily on many who visited. Jacobsen described a dark corner that seemed to loom in the background during those years.
He praised the grit, courage and determination of the retreat’s leaders to fight off that darkness and preserve La Casa de Maria as a place of spiritual peace.
“What a thing it is to be here today and burn that darn mortgage,” Jacobsen said.
Lillian Lovelace, a philanthropic supporter of the center and its neighbor, said she never doubted the strength of its leadership. She described how she had moved to Montecito from Los Angeles 36 years ago and found herself living next door to the retreat, sharing a long border.
“We had no idea that right next door there was something very close to paradise,” she said.
Lovelace said center’s leaders could have easily sold off portions of the property to pay off their debt — slicing off organic gardens or wooded pathways to even the balance.
“But no, it remains intact,” she said. “We are here today because they were able to pull it off.”
However, the $4 million campaign is just the first phase of an overall effort to rejuvenate and renew the retreat center.
Phase two involves renovating and refurbishing its buildings, from meeting and retreat rooms to its Immaculate Heart Center and chapel. Plans also call for renewing its landscaping in an environmentally friendly way, in addition to bolstering its programs and scholarships.
“We can be a model of sustainability for those who come here,” Glatt said.
The second phase of the campaign carries a price tag of $2.88 million. But again, it’s only the start of efforts to keep La Casa de Maria a vibrant and welcoming space.
“There’s probably going to be a Phase 15,” Glatt said.
After a Chumash blessing from Julie Tumamait-Stenslie and her daughter, Rane, as well as the mortgage burning, guests and retreat leaders mingled and celebrated with drinks and food from the harvest.
Although the center still has plenty of work ahead, Glatt said she is simply glad to be rid of its debt.
“It’s all up hill from here,” she said.
Monday, November 3, 2008
BY ERIC LINDBERG