Through a series of articles, we show the journey of how we came to Heart Ridge.
After a thorough assessment of all the work that needs to be finished at the retreat center, we have decided to officially open the retreat center in February of 2021. Delays caused by the Corona Virus and other newly discovered facility repairs and maintenance has pushed the opening date back a little further than we had anticipated.
This will give us enough time to have everything fully operable and looking great! We hope to have some preliminary events just to "warm us up." So far this will be a women's retreat, a Father-son retreat, and a family Advent retreat. If you haven't yet, please sign up for our monthly newsletter that will announce these events and other important news about the retreat center.
We've also been so excited about friends and family members who are volunteering their time here. It's difficult, usually dirty work, and often in hot, humid weather. When Covid19 struck and completely isolated us from our friends, we felt all alone in this huge endeavor we decided to follow. By God's great mercy, he sent us our very own family members. Our oldest son and his family who had been living in California came to live here for a couple of months. Our daughter and her husband also came from Chicago. What a wonderful opportunity it was to spend this time together. A third son also came to live here with his family, from Steubenville, OH and decided to stay. He and his wife are skilled in landscaping and horticulture. Just what we needed!
Lately, with Covid restrictions being lifted, we have seen some of our other grown children here at the retreat center volunteering their time and muscles. Finally, we've had some friends come to help.
Before the Corona Virus hit, we had planned on having family work weekends over the summer. With having to practice social distance, we are being a little more informal with our work days. We're spreading it all out. Basically, we are taking any help we can get at any time.
Please continue to pray for us. I'll try to be better at posting pictures on Facebook about our progress. Please follow and like us there.
We love our lake. In the video below, you will see some of its wonderful features. How thrilled we were to find a retreat center that had it's own lake. Heart Ridge also has a couple little creeks, as well, that pour into this central feature.
Having never grown up on a lake or visiting a lake, we've had to learn many things. One of the most important lessons we've learned is that finding where and how water goes is crucial. When it rains--it pours! Since we are surrounded by mountains, the water just floods into our lake. With that comes the silt, or sand, which clogs our drainage pipes. We've got a driveway that's probably going to collapse with the next great rain because the culvert pipe is almost full of this silt. In fact, the cement bridge over it is already cracking.
This water-draining problem has to be managed all over the property. Many ditches and french drains are already in place, but many more need repairs or are non-existent.
Then there are issues with algae, and water "weeds." When you see a nice lake at a golf course, they are usually managed by a company that uses some kind of weed killers and pesticides. We want our lake to be all natural so we're seeking natural solutions--like our carp. Overall, we are very happy with it. It seems "healthy."
It's been an education. Most of this enjoyable "education" about our lake has come from just taking time getting to know our lake and it's many residents (frogs, fish, turtles, muskrats, birds, etc.) who live there.
We Bought a Zoo
Many people will look back on this Covid-19 crisis with mixed emotions. Some will have feelings of sadness, anxiety, and frustration. But I bet most of you will also have some memories of joy, happiness, even peace. I'm amazed every time I look on Facebook and see what some of our family friends are doing.
We, similarly, are experiencing these emotions. Although we don't know anyone personally who has died from the virus, we do know some who have battled through it, and we have had to separate ourselves from many family members as we are trying to safely live in a quarantine of sorts.
However, unlike many of you--we bought a zoo the day our state issued a social distance mandate. Ok, it isn't really a zoo, but at times, it certainly feels like it. Every evening we fall asleep to a chorus of loud nature sounds. In the morning we awake to the morning crowd, often including flocks of honking geese. We've seen our share of a variety of creatures, each one unique and beautiful.
So no, we didn't buy a zoo, but what we really bought was an old camp/reform school/Baptist church/foster home in Blue Ridge mountains in South Carolina in hopes of transforming it into a retreat and cultural center.
When I say it was all of those things--I mean it really was. The latest occupants that we purchased it from were a combination of foster/rehab group homes. They had some money problems and had to bail. They started many projects on the property, but mostly left it unfinished. Both organizations left us with a lot of their stuff that they had moved here from their former group homes. Plus, there was a lot of stuff left over from the other folks who had lived here before (like a reform school, girl's camp, Baptist church). That being said, we are sorting through lots of stuff! Here are some examples:
I can't begin to tell you what all we've found. Add to this list over 1000 brand new work gloves, army fatigues, cowboy boots, flower arrangements, and schoolbooks. Oh I could go on. . .
The only reason I mention this was that there was also a collection of DVDs that we found here. And in that collection was the movie, you guessed it, "We Bought a Zoo."
And that's exactly how we feel! We're overwhelmed, stretched, and wondering if we've made a crazy mistake! The movie had a happy ending with the family at peace with one another and the zoo bringing joy to community.
That's our hope, too.
I'm beginning to share here "Glimpses into Heart Ridge" which will take you on mini-tours of the Retreat and Cultural Center and share with you some of our plans.
There's nothing like the opportunity of moving to help you sort your stuff and get rid of what you don't need. We've lived in our current house for over 20 years, and it looked as though we had to get it ready to sell. This put me in a panic! I'm so sentimental about everything. I really love this home and think about all of the memories I've made here with my family. My kids did most of their growing up here.
OH so many memories here. . .
But in God's great mercy--He has figured out a way for us to keep our house--at least for a little bit longer. Since my husband will still need to commute to work and my son to attend his Catholic high school, we were thinking about renting an apartment to stay in for a couple nights a week. This would still be cheaper than paying our mortgage for our current house.
But now in our new plan, we will rent out a large portion of our house to 3 renters. They will each get a bedroom and bathroom and share the common areas of our house with us, when we are there, as well as with our other 2 adult sons who are still at home. This is really too good to be true. Our house isn't huge, but because of our large family, we have a lot of bedrooms!
This move is a lot easier because we just need to move 3 children out of their current rooms. Both my husband and I are giving up our offices--so we're moving all of our "office" stuff. And finally, since we are setting up a "new" house at the retreat center for ourselves, we also need to move enough stuff to set up a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom there.
I don't know about you, but unfortunately, I have enough stuff in my house for two houses! Sad, but true.
So this is really good for me to do.
"We Bought a Retreat Center!" It's a done deal. On the day after the Feast of St. Joseph at the start of the CoVid social distancing in South Carolina we became the official owners of a retreat place in Sunset, SC. Now the fun begins!
Chapter 9 of "Finding Heart Ridge" : Ok, THIS has got to be the place. Thank You, St. Joseph
The day after we left the zoning meeting with the Spartanburg Co. people, Tami went home and started crunching numbers. She wanted to see if we made all of the changes, including adding the "motel", to the place in Campobello what that final cost would be, and more importantly, what would that monthly mortgage payment look like. The easiest place to find a mortgage calculator online is Realtor.com. It was when she went onto this web page that she noticed--without even searching--a rather large, piece of property, for sale in Sunset. Upon further inspection, she immediately emailed the property to Keith and said, "We've got to look at this ASAP."
Although we haven't mentioned it in the other blog posts, besides St. Therese, and some other saints, we have always been big fans of St. Joseph. Especially Keith. As the patron saint of real estate, we've been praying to him regularly. He's been our constant companion, especially as we've been considering the feasibility of doing this and supporting our family.
So we called our South Carolina realtor, Susan, and scheduled a tour.
Each time we visited we "discovered" something new. Once it was a complete chapel! Another time, a tiny house. This last time, we found a weight room with Nautilus equipment.
But first a brief history--and it's much more complicated than this. A long time ago--in the 90s, it was a reform camp/school for girls run by a Baptist couple. Before that, in the 50's this beautiful stone house on a lake was built and owned by a professional tennis player. The Baptist couple sold it in a few years ago to another organization that runs homes for children. This organization leased it out to another organization who was running a home for Foster children. This last organization had serious money problems, and also, was being chased out of town from the people of Pickens county who did not approve of their methods of reform. With all kinds of tax evasion, and bankruptcy problems, they were forced to sell. Their misfortune was fortunate for us.
Many of the buildings were ready to "go." Others, however, were in terrible disrepair. But the potential of everything we wanted for a great retreat center were there:
The first time we visited, there was no power--in fact it took quite a few visits before we could convince the power company to turn the power back on. (They were owed money.) But in December, when it was a little chilly and no power, we were wondering through all of these spaces in the dark, with only the flashlights on our phones. One space in the gymnasium was particularly dark. (You never know what you will find when you open a door--especially as these spaces have no windows. As we opened one door, we saw a shadow of something or someone sitting on a chair. As we shone the light on it, this is what we saw:
In a Baptist camp--we found a statue of St. Joseph! Amazing!
Of course when we went back later to look with electricity, we saw Mary, too. This St. Joseph was part of a nativity scene. But why was he propped on the chair eagerly greeting us?
After more trips to this place with family and friends, we decided to make an offer on the place. This was the biggest Christmas present we ever bought for each other.
Although we hoped to close in January or February, because of the uniqueness of the property, the financial mess the seller was in, the extra taxes, the extra insurance, and all the other red tape--it took a lot longer to close than expected. Our final closing date was just the other day--the day after March 19th--the Feast of St. Joseph. (It was supposed to be on the 19th but pushed back one more day--close enough!)
Stay tuned as the journey continues!
Chapter 8 of "Finding Heart Ridge": No THIS is Really the Place! Right in Campobello, SC!
We started searching again. This time we found a place closer to home that looked very promising. It was about 30 minutes from Keith's place of work, meaning we could move here, and he could easily continue working. The place was also reasonably priced on 75 acres!
It was a former conference center used initially for corporate retreats--in particular by a large textile company called, Miliken. It had also been used most recently for retreats and as a wedding venue. The current owners were using as a vacation home were they could retreat to the woods and mountain bike.
The 75 acres were mostly wooded with a nice creek running the whole way through with a couple of ponds. The main structure was a 7000 sq. ft. modern-type cedar building with 10 bedrooms. At the end of the property was the ruins of an old mill. I loved this part. All that remained was a wall that damned the creek and created a small waterfall that flowed into a swimming hole. I'm just sorry I don't have a picture of it.
The property also consisted of a duplex, another small dwelling, (all three of these spaces currently being rented) and a barn. Besides woods, the property had several acres of pasture. Campobello is in the heart of horse country. So after many visits. (We had to shed a tear and say good bye to our North Carolina realtor since she wasn't certified in South Carolina.) We hired Susan, a friend from Greenville, to be a realtor. We also planned out the many options to make this place work. And we called in our friends and family for their help, too. We showed them all the place.
Ultimately, besides the main conference center that just needed a good power washing, we were going to get some more lodging options by turning the barn into a boutique-like motel, and starting a tiny home village. We consulted with McMillan Pazdan Smith Architect of Greenville, SC for help in designing and wading our way through some of the code issues.
We made an offer with a 30 day contingency plan, meaning that we could get out of the offer for any reason. To further inspect the buildings, we needed to be in a contract with the sellers and pay some earnest money.
The lengthy inspection came back better than we expected. There were some weird quirks with how it was built. We also knew we would be replacing all of the decking and railing on the main house. We also figured out a way to make it handicap accessible.
Next, we planned a meeting with the zoning board in Spartanburg county--where Campobello was located. A representative from the Architect company came with us as we sat across the table from the zoning board explaining our vision.
Long story short--they could not figure out a way to zone us. (They had never even heard of a retreat center.) They kept trying to put us in the category of a campground, or a hotel, or a housing development --and all of these options had different "zoning hoops" to jump through. All of them very costly. For example, we would need the driveway throughout the place to be 20 ft. wide! Maybe a sprinkler system put in the main place. These items, on top of what we were already going to fix seemed unfeasible.
We were so discouraged. Maybe this place wasn't the place.
Chapter 7 of "Finding Heart Ridge" : The Place with the Glass Chapel and the Anatomically Correct Wooden Boy Statue
We were not through with the Rutherfordton area. It had so many other possibilities. It is beautiful farmland in the foothills of the mountains. Within a short drive you are at Chimney Rock and other mountainous parks as well as whitewater rafting and zip lining. The next place we found shortly after we decided against the last place, we truly thought "was it." This place had it all and for a very, very reasonable price.
It was 60 acres of mostly wooded, gently sloping land, with a small creek, small pond, and open pasture. It not only had this beautiful glass chapel, and a couple of other outdoor chapels (which we thought could make some cool shrines) but a large house, a sharecropper's house, and 4 log cabins. In fact, the 4 log cabins were all authentic log cabins from before the 1800's. Two of them were on the property originally. The other two were bought and moved there.
Everything seemed in relatively good shape. The log cabins had been recently renovated and used on AirBnB. The larger white house, actually started out as a log cabin itself, but had been added on, and added on, and added on.
We brought some of our friends here. They loved the place. We made plans and tried to figure out if this place could support what we envisioned for our retreat place.
One of the most important aspects we wanted for our retreat place was to be able to host Family Camps over the summer. We had attended different meaningful versions of family camp with our own family, mainly the Marianist Family Camp, but also the CL Vacations, and to a certain extent, the annual Home school Camporees at Devil's Fork. With this property we figured that we could get almost 10 families there at a time. We also were thinking about starting a Catholic Artist in residency program, where a small group of artist could come and live together and work on their respective arts. Finally, we wanted a performance venue or event space. We figured a way to make all of this work here.
We attended the local parish mass and met with the priest. It was a stunning, recently built church, and we found the priest very supportive. We also noticed some nuns at the mass and tracked them down. It ends up that these Benedictine nuns recently moved to the area, too. We visited their small community just a hop, skip, and jump away from the property we were considering. We loved these nuns and small farm they were beginning. They also held days of recollection at their place and retreats for small groups. We couldn't have asked for better neighbors. They told us about finding their current place after a long search and encouraged us with these words, "You'll know the place when you see it," meaning that once we find the right retreat place, we'll know it.
Although we loved many aspects of this property in Rutherfordton, we were a little unsettled about a few things--first of all, the history of the place. It's former owner who had passed bequeathed the place on to his niece. She was doing a great job keeping the place clean and in order, but was very ready to sell it. The former owner was an Episcopalian priest. He was responsible for bringing the Episcopal church to the area and also responsible for supporting the arts and culture in the area. This was why the place was filled will all kinds of art--there must have been over 100 hand-thrown pottery goblets, among many other kinds of collections. Tons of religious items. Antiques galore. Unfortunately, this priest had been accused of molestation. We can't find if he actually went to trial for this, but he was dismissed by the diocese. Evidently, he returned to his family farm and built his own church. He had many supporters and continued providing places for people to come to visit.
There were many other weird things about the place. We found some random graves, for example. Some of the art, like the wooden carved naked boy, freaked everyone out when we were showing them the property. Could these things be overlooked?
We thought so. This is why we were going to pay such a reasonable price.
The priest had trails, even a Stations of the Cross, set up winding through the woods and babbling brook. It was a beautiful piece of property and one we could afford.
We decided to pray super hard over the weekend and make an offer on Monday.
At church on Sunday, we ran into my good friend, Paula. We think she is a living saint. We shared with her our recent discovery of a potential retreat place. We also told her we were really spending the weekend discerning and were planning to make an offer on Monday, unless we got some kind of sign or something. She immediately said to us, "Let's pray." She prayed very specifically that if this were not meant to be that we would hear the word "no."
Later that evening, when we were at home, we got a phone call from our son, Seth. He said he was calling to beg us not to buy this place in Rutherfordton. Seth had not been in contact with us for a couple of weeks and did not know that we were getting ready to make the decision. His motive was simply because it would mean that we were further away from him. He and his wife were looking to buy a home somewhere near Clemson University where he works. He was hoping we'd find something closer to him. He just wanted us to try harder to find something closer to his family.
To us, with it's timing, it seemed like a definite "no," or at least let's wait and look some more.
I know we've said this a few times before, but this place has to be it! Look at it. We were still saying many, many prayers, discerning like we should. In particular, this time we were praying to St. Therese. And like I mentioned in the last post, looking for roses. Not too far up the road from Tryon, NC, is another area that had a few potential retreat sites and in a great price range.
While we were looking online--and still praying to Therese, we found this place. It sits in the foothills, near the town of Rutherfordton, NC. This giant mansion in Victorian style was built in 1993--not too old--but it also is on 163 acres and is on the edge of a beautiful river. (And in our price range!)
Not only did the house of rose wallpaper all over the place (remember St. Therese answers prayers with showers of roses) but look. St. Therese is on the wall, too. And here's JPII in the house library.
While we're scrolling through these pictures online, we were jumping out of our seats. This is too good to be true! What an answered prayer!
I did some research online and found out about the owners. They are indeed a large Catholic family. They even had a lovely little chapel in their home. To respect their privacy, I won't say more.
We immediately called our realtor to schedule a viewing. We really thought that this was the one.
We visited here only once. They had a door to go up to the roof on this three story house with a deck (without a railing) for viewing stars.
We loved the property and the river. And although the house was large, with a lot of rooms, we didn't really love it. The family had moved out at least a year before and the place was in disrepair.
It's not that we couldn't look past cosmetic repairs to fix it up, we just didn't think it would fit our mission. There was a lot of land and lots of potential, but if we were going to sink that much money into a piece of property to build cabins, and meeting spaces, we thought we might as well just start from scratch. This place would have provided a nice place for our family to live, but not really much for those coming on a retreat.
Perhaps this wasn't an answer to prayer, even though it seemed like it obviously was. (What was with the St. Therese? And a Catholic family needing to sell their property?)
With each property we looked it, we were challenged to think about our mission and what we wanted to transpire at our retreat place.
Sometimes, we'd try to fit our mission and plans to the property we were looking at-- but with this one especially, we couldn't make it work.
Discerning God's will for anything is pretty difficult! Sure, we've prayed. We've novena'd. We've even pilgrimaged for that clear "yes" from God. "Is this the one?"
After St. Therese's novena--my husband and I were seeing roses everywhere--wallpaper, in someone's last name, in a woman's dress, on the altar in church--everywhere! Was this the Little Flower's way of shouting at us? Maybe. But perhaps, we're using prayer like a vending machine. If you simply put in a prayer into the slot, choose your request, and voila, your answer comes out of the bottom. Prayer doesn't work like that. This was a lesson for us to remember. Even if you do have that great faith that a saint will come through for you, it's just not how God works.
We've also been tuning into the scriptures. In seems that every Bible verse is telling us to either "store up treasures in heaven" or "ask and it will be given to you." As a couple who will be making a financial risk to make the retreat center happen, these verses are certainly consoling. Is Jesus speaking to us directly here?
Yes, there are times when we can be bowled away by an answered prayer, but that's not the norm. That's not how it ordinarily works. It takes lots of prayer. Lots of consistent prayer. And usually a lot of waiting.
Even if you've never had to open a retreat center, we know that this experience of trying to find God's will is something you can relate to. We've all prayed for spouse selection, jobs, moves, house purchases, pregnancies, and more.
I've seen recent books out on "Discerning God's Will." And I think maybe if I read this book, I will see clearly what God wants. All I have to do is order the book, read it, and that will bring me the answer I seek.
But I've been down this path before. I've read many books like that in the past when I've been looking for other answers to prayer. Is there really anything else I can do differently?
Well, yes. Actually, there is. And I'm not sure if these books on discerning God's will mention this, but one way that we can "hear" what Jesus is telling us is through the people he puts in our lives. Wisdom and advice from others. Jesus incarnate in others.
So last weekend we took a couple of friends up to the place that we think God has provided for us. We gave them the grand tour. Over pizza and beer, my husband and I listened to what they said.
Coincidences or answered prayer?
We find ourselves in a week of waiting. . . again. . . . We think this is the right place.
Please send a prayer our way!
Dear Jesus, please help us to see!
Keith and Tami Kiser
On the journey of building a retreat center and more.