Laura Marble, LMarble@ExplorerNews.com
The charred remains of a newly renovated retreat center building lie on a hill off Picture Rock Road. At the center of the remains are rows of damaged chairs that were intended for a gathering before fire got in the way.
Near the ashes, builders busily work to renovate and construct other buildings, including private hermitages for solitude seekers, a rectory and a meeting hall with picture windows overlooking a pool.
The Redemptorist Renewal Center is moving forward with its project to renovate its grounds, despite a fire in early October that changed its $5 million renovation price tag to $6.5 million. The center plans to have its burned-down main building rebuilt by the end of May, and a full slate of workshops and retreat groups back by the end of July.
"We're looking to the future and wanting to assure these groups that indeed we are past that crisis and now we're just looking to build up that calendar in 2006," said Susan Melanson, the center's program director.
The center staff has had a long month, dealing not only with the loss of the building but also the cancellation of most programs and workshops for this year and half of next year.
Life goes on, though, at a place that was created to teach people about the gifts of a contemplative life: It allows you to see the bigger picture surrounding anything, including fires.
"I think the contemplative spirit helps you put it into perspective," said the Rev. Thomas Santa, the center's executive director.
The Redemptorists Renewal Center, built in 1964 on land bordering Saguaro National Park, is a place of natural beauty for people to quiet their minds and engage in reflection. A sign on the chapel door reads, "I will lead you to the desert where I will speak to your heart."
Run by Roman Catholics, the center brings together people from diverse spiritual traditions that have contemplation at their core. Its school for spiritual direction teaches traditions of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Quakers, Christians and Native Americans. During a normal year, 8,500 to 10,000 people visit the center from the United States and abroad.
"Any faith tradition is welcome here as long as the program is spiritual in nature, respectful of contemplation and quiet, and respectful of other traditions on the property," Santa said.
Early on the morning of Oct. 7, though, the place where visitors eat their meals burned, taking with it the center's kitchen, dining room and library, and $300,000 in equipment. The center's fine dishes were there because an almost-complete $400,000 renovation project had made cabinet space for them.
The dishes perished along with a grand piano, about 2,000 books, and the center's banquet chairs and tables, which had been moved into the building for a steam cleaning.
"I know in the next six months I'm going to say, 'I want to go and get - no, I can't do that," Santa said.
A cook, Rina Noches, who has prepared meals for retreatants in the building for 16 years, mourned the loss of a kitchen where she said she had learned to approach the world from a contemplative perspective.
"It's my second house, and part of my life is there," she said. "It's not mine, but it feels like mine."
Despite grief, staff members got an early start on work only hours after the firefighters left. At 7 a.m., they began placing calls, intercepting people before they boarded airplanes to come to Arizona. One man found out about the fire on his cell phone at a Missouri airport.
For 15 months off and on, the center has asked groups to reschedule their events around its renovation construction. The fire caused many of them to have to change their plans again, and this during the retreat center's peak season. The center had booked 80 to 100 people a day in January to the end of June.
"The sadness is that we've had to call people and say we can't have your retreat, because they look forward to these a year in advance," Melanson said. "They can't wait to be in the desert again, walk in the washes and have peace, silence and introspection."
Programs are canceled through December. Next year's programs through July will be reduced by two-thirds to include just the groups small enough to dine on the center's property.
The burned-down dining room seated 125 people. The center's other three kitchens, including the one in the rectory where staff members live, can accommodate only 10 people each. The center's business interruption insurance will pay only for a month of lost revenue.
For 41 years, the Redemptorist Renewal Center has been in the business of giving retreatants an environment in which to contemplate their lives and experiences within the context of the larger world.
Santa said the center's fire was not devastating. After all, no one died, and no one is without a home.
"I don't like people using the word 'devastating,'" he said. "It's not devastating, it's a challenge."
Besides, Santa said, the fire was not without its attributes. For one thing, it spurred a decision to have sprinklers put in other old buildings at the center.
"The fire is a blessing because when we saw the damage it did to the building it made us realize that three buildings are not retrofitted for sprinklers," he said. "We can't put people's lives at risk like that."
The staff benefited from an outpouring of concern from people who care about the center. Many people decided to contribute their returned retreat deposits toward rebuilding the dining building, and a neighbor of the center, Santa said, donated $1,000.
Also, flames could have ignited the beloved chapel made of stone taken from the property - they came close - but the chapel was not damaged.
And finally, Santa said, no employee lost a job.
Noches, the center's longtime cook, is working at St. Mary's Hospital until January, when she plans to return to the center to cook in one of its small kitchens until the dining room is rebuilt.
"The name says 'renewal center,' so I hope everything is fine for the people," she said. "The people are most important here."