Doug Norris the new executive director of Abbey Retreat Centre stands by the pond in the centre's backyard. Norris wants to grow the retreat centre both as a community meeting venue and in the number of retreats it offers for people with a cancer diagnosis and their caregivers. /JENN WATT Staff

Abbey Retreat Centre building community

By Jenn Watt

It takes between $10000 and $12000 to run a four-day retreat at Abbey Retreat Centre for people with a cancer diagnosis and their caregivers. And while executive director Doug Norris would like to offer them every month the challenge is bringing in enough money for that to happen.

Because the retreats are free to participants money is brought in through other means: donations and renting out the six-bedroom home overlooking a tranquil pond and rolling green hills.

Norris is focusing on bringing in the funding for retreats and building community around ARC which officially opened its doors in May of 2018 after some preliminary work in 2017. Last weekend the centre hosted its 12th retreat.

“It’s a key thing for us that these other two layers of activity the community building usages and the venue rental all of that is to drive revenue so that we can do cancer care retreats” Norris said. “We want to do them more often. We have a wait list of months and months now which is delightful [because] it tells us the need is there. The program we’re offering is responding to that need.”

Norris took on the lead role with ARC in February moving up full-time to his home on Maple Lake which was a part-time residence for him and his wife Heather for years.

Before coming to Haliburton Norris was a minister with the United Church leading five charges over his 35-year career. The last 18 of those years were spent at Rosedale United in Toronto.

“I think one of the reasons we found Toronto manageable at a human scale was Haliburton. Not long after moving to Toronto we bought a property on Maple Lake and developed plans to build” he said.

Norris also recently became a Rotarian in Haliburton and in his spare time enjoys restoring old cars.

Right now there isn’t much time to spare. As the only employee at Abbey Retreat Centre Norris has plenty to do. As he finishes up his interview with the Echo volunteers start to arrive in the circular driveway outside the centre. Jim Hicks has brought a tractor to help dig a firepit in the backyard. As he works to unload it from the trailer several others arrive to get the centre ready for the weekend to come: a four-day retreat is about to begin.

“A huge amount of the work around the centre is accomplished by the volunteers” Norris said. They do work on the yard small construction projects in the house and get things prepared for new guests.

Now that referrals are coming from outside the county and sometimes outside the country new puzzles arise for Norris and the volunteers to tackle.

Last weekend’s retreat included a Spanish-speaking couple meaning Spanish-speaking volunteers needed to be found to provide translation.

“It’s kind of exciting. It’s moving us past just the basic delivery” he said.

The retreats are about connecting people and providing them with the tools to stay well as they navigate their cancer diagnosis through programming. Yoga mediation massage therapy music art and food all play roles during the four days with a local chef named Ester on site cooking up healthful meals.

“We eat very well in both senses of the word. It’s delicious and it’s demonstrated to be very healthy” Norris said.

The residential retreat model brings a small group together that often quickly develops into community he said. “It’s remarkable to watch a group who on Thursday evening don’t know each other and have lots of reason to just want to kind of be by themselves form a community and by Sunday be very comfortable with challenging conversations around disease life and death.”

“The team of good facilitators and the right setting can evoke that out of the people who are attending.”

Norris said he’s eager to hear from people in Haliburton County who want to collaborate with Abbey Retreat Centre. He sees it as part of a larger community and hopes that groups that are doing work consistent with the ethos of ARC can connect potentially renting space for events.

“Anything at all that we’re doing to build up the fabric of community in Haliburton is by extension looking after our health. I’m eager to be part of whatever else seems to emerge” he said.
You can get in touch with Norris at 705-754-2966 or email