June 11th, 2017
“As I grew up, one of my strongest allies has been my sister.” – Patti Smith
Karin and I made every effort to avoid staying in hotels during the course of our journey. I despise hotels. When necessary, we spent a night in one of them, but with great reluctance. A few of them have a unique style, but most hotels and motels have a soul-deadening uniformity. They try to please everyone and offend no one. A room is a room is a room. In addition to the bland sterility of a typical hotel, there is a sense of isolation. Nobody talks to anybody else. The desk clerk is usually pleasant and helpful, but everyone else acts like they are residents of a Soviet-style republic. People don’t even look at each other. Making eye contact is apparently dangerous. Each guest goes to his or her room, and waits there for the opportunity to leave the place and move on to the next antiseptic port in the storm.
Karin and I usually stayed at retreat houses. Generally, these houses were religious in nature, sometimes attached to a monastery. With one exception, these places were all run by Catholic organizations. The one exception was “Simply Sisters” in Richmond, Minnesota. It was definitely different.
A woman at Terra Sancta, our previous base of operations in Rapid City, South Dakota, was aware that Karin and I intended to travel to the east and she provided us with a list of retreat centers in Minnesota. There were five centers on the list, and I received no response to my phone inquiries at four of them. It was only when I called Simply Sisters that somebody answered the phone. That somebody was Holly Roush, the owner of the retreat house. Holly was thrilled when I asked her about getting a room at her place for the next night. She indicated that we could certainly stay overnight, or even for two nights if we wanted. She told me that we would be the only guests in the entire house. I told Holly that Karin and I would showing up later the following evening, and that we would send her a text as we got close to the retreat center.
Karin and I drove for over ten hours the next day. We were dog tired when we finally arrived at Simply Sisters. Holly was there to greet us. The house was of sturdy brick construction, and it had been a convent years ago. SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church was just down the street, and it was built in a similar style. Holly showed us to our room on the first floor. We were going to sleep in what used to be the chapel. There was a bathroom with a shower down the hall, and there was fully operational kitchen available for our use.
We had been on the road for five days straight, so I asked Holly if we could stay for two nights. Karin and I needed a break. Holly was fine with that. She needed the income. As Holly explained it, she makes most of her revenue during the fall and winter months. She has very few guests come to stay with her during the summer. Most of her clients were quilters. There are very few religious retreats held at the center, but Holly hosts numerous quilting retreats in this old house. I guess quilting qualifies as a religion, or at least a cult. Holly also has an occasional family reunion book her center for a weekend.
Holly showed Karin and me the code for locking the front door, and then she left us to our own devices. We had the whole house for ourselves. Holly’s operation does not provide meals for the guests. That is one reason she chooses to call the place a retreat center. It’s not a “bed and breakfast”, and “retreat center” sounds better than saying “bed without breakfast”. In any case, Karin and I were on our own with regards to finding food.
Richmond is in Garrison Keillor country. There is even a “Lake Wobegon Bike Trail” nearby. If a person walked a few blocks in any direction, he or she would be standing in somebody’s farm field. The town looks like it was settled by Germans and Swedes, and it has that sort of Teutonic tidiness about it. It’s the kind of place where the church festivals (at least the Catholic ones) rival rock concerts in their scope. The Sauk River flows quietly through the town.
Karin and I had supper at Jerry’s Firehouse, a respectable Upper Midwest bar and grill. I had a glass of a blonde ale from the Beaver Island Brewery in nearby St. Cloud. I like to support local brewers. The food was good, and the tavern was quiet for a Saturday night.
Sunday morning was dark with the sound of thunder in the distance. I got up, made some coffee, and walked out on the veranda. Low grey clouds swept across the sky. There were flashes of lightning in the west. It was a good day not to be driving. The wind picked up and the rain poured down.
Later Karin and I went to Mass at SS. Peter and Paul. The parishioners recited the rosary before Mass started. The church is beautiful inside and out. There are clocks on each side of the steeple. None of them keep the correct time, or even the same time. There are also bells that toll promptly at eight minutes after the hour. I’m not sure how anybody makes it to the service.
Sunday was a good day to explore the house. Simply Sisters has twelve bedrooms with eighteen beds. I was tempted, like Goldilocks, to try out each bed to fins the one that was just right. Instead, I looked at everything and tried to get a sense of the place. I noticed a few things.
Simply Sisters is in many ways still a convent. The house has a totally feminine vibe to it. Just the name indicates that. The décor also sends a subtle message. There are still a few stain glass windows in the house. There is one lone crucifix in the side hallway. Other things say clearly that this is a woman’s home: the lace curtains, the doilies on the overstuffed chairs, the flower arrangements, the embroidered pillows, the scented candles, the bowl of mints, the displayed book titled “Kinship of Women”, the carpeting with the floral pattern, the wallpaper with a floral pattern, and antique tea cups. I have to admire Holly’s attention to detail. This is a place where a woman would feel comfortable and safe.
There are many pictures hanging in the various rooms. Most of them show serene rural scenes, places that probably only existed in the artist’s imagination. There are numerous drawings of cherubic children, or of mothers with their infants. There is not one single image of an adult male in the entire building, unless you count the corpus on the crucifix.
The quilting theme is very strong too. There are numerous tables set up for sewing machines. Ironing boards wait in a corner to be used. In the main room there are two large quilts hanging on the wall like medieval tapestries. There is also a picture on the wall of a quilt, with a floral pattern no less.
Simply Sisters reminds me of going to my grandma’s house, or even of the home of my childhood. There is a lot of wood in the building, mostly stained in a warm maple color. Massive doorframes hold up sold wood doors. Inlaid cabinetry testifies to the skill and labor of the artisans. The double hung windows are absurdly large, just like the ones in the house where I grew up. There are sliding wood doors that hide inside the walls of the dining room. We had doors like that when I was a little boy. My wife mentioned that the tea cups in the kitchen had the same pattern as her mother’s did, so the house made her remember things too.
On the second floor is an old school light switch, the kind with two buttons to turn on and off the electricity. It is warmer on the second and third floors of the house, and these floors have a smell from the old wood finish. It’s kind of a monastic smell. I remember it from a Franciscan friary. There are transom windows above the doors on the second floor. I remember those too from the friary.
Holly made mention that she hoped to expand her clientele. She wants to attract more than just the quilters. I’m not sure how she can do that. The retreat center is geared toward attracting a certain population. It is gender specific. Simply Sisters is primarily there for women, especially older women. Unless Holly decides to build an addition and fill it with power tools, firearms, and craft beer, I don’t see how she will guys to come to the house.
I liked the house. I am glad that we visited there. I became aware of its beauty and history. I am also aware that I don’t belong there.