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  • By Melinda Burns

La Casa de Maria Is Healing Post-Disaster


It has been called the soul of Montecito – a healing place amid the oak woodlands of San Ysidro Creek, where people of all faiths could go to the mountain to pray, dance, sing, quilt, paint -- or, if they felt like it, study Buddhism or beekeeping, and come away refreshed and ready to face the world again.

But these days, La Casa de María, the nonprofit interfaith retreat and conference center at 800 El Bosque Road, has all it can do to heal itself.

La Casa was the hardest hit by the catastrophic debris flow that struck Montecito on Jan. 9, among 349 properties, or parcels of land that suffered structural damage.

Beyond what insurance provides, La Casa will need at least $30 million in philanthropic funding to build back its former capacity for 12,000 annual visitors, most of whom were women, said Linda Alexander, executive director of the Immaculate Heart Community of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The IHC, a nonprofit organization, purchased the 26-acre estate for $35,000 in 1943.

“This is our ancestral home and we have every intention of bringing it back,” Alexander said.

“But until we’re up and running, we’re likely to have deficit years," she added. "Business will be smaller. We’re going to need a whole lot of help. We have to figure out how visitors can have a peaceful, rejuvenating experience while we’re rebuilding.”

When catastrophe came. It’s a daunting prospect. Nine of La Casa’s 17 buildings, including meeting rooms, massage rooms, offices, guest cottages, dormitories, a meditation chapel and a pool house full of historic records, were obliterated in a massive flow of mud, rocks and debris on Jan. 9.

Five additional buildings were damaged. An enormous boulder slammed into one side of the iconic Spanish-style chapel. The roof of the main dining room caved in and all the tables and chairs were swept away.

Most of the damage to buildings occurred on the eastern half of the property nearest the creek. Hundreds of trees were yanked out there, roots and all. The gently sloping woodlands where visitors used to meditate in the leafy quiet have been stripped to bare ground, sans oaks, sans sycamores and sans shade.

In recent months, much of the debris has been cleaned up. A few visitors have been invited back on a trial run to La Casa’s main house, the elegant Center for Spiritual Renewal, an architectural gem from the 1920s and ‘30s. It suffered only minor mud damage.

On Aug. 6, La Casa will open to the public for the first time since the disaster, for its annual peace ceremony commemorating the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings of August, 1945. The event is free and will be held from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

But no date has been set for a wider reopening.

“We’re working with a lot of uncertainty,” said Director Emerita Stephanie Glatt, a former Catholic nun who spent her novitiate at the main house in 1957. Glatt is one of only 11 employees who remain at La Casa; 32 were laid off after Jan. 9.

“We’re still grieving all the loss of our staff and our buildings,” Glatt said. “But I’m so impressed with our devotion. I guess when something’s threatened, you realize how much you love it.

“I just feel like La Casa is going to rise up out of this.”

"Ups and downs."

Disaster recovery presents just as big a challenge for La Casa as the existential crisis of 1970, when the nuns who owned the property, having dared to cast off their habits, pray on their own timetable and choose their own field of work, were forced out of official religious life by the Catholic Church.

They responded by throwing open their doors to men and women of all Christian traditions, and eventually, to people of all faiths; and the retreat prospered.

“I’ve forgotten how many ups and downs we have had,” Glatt said. “Before, something bad happened, but the buildings were there. We could foresee the future, whereas this is so visually devastating. That makes it really difficult.”

La Casa’s flow of overnight guests, once 160 strong on weekends, has slowed to a trickle. Dozens of groups and individuals who made reservations to visit this year have donated their deposits to the recovery effort, but La Casa’s annual budget of $4 million is a distant memory.

“We don’t have the financial wherewithal to rebuild exactly as we want or as soon as we want,” said Anne Price, acting director.

The retreat has always been seen as an affordable place to bask in the beauty of Montecito, a wealthy enclave with expensive hotels. But for the next few years, the directors say, La Casa may have to close during the wet season, until the vegetation grows back on the mountainside that was burned in the Thomas Fire.

This Jan. 8, ninety-seven guests had to be evacuated to the Pepper Tree Inn in Santa Barbara.

In limbo.

Meanwhile, La Casa has been swamped with requests for reservations from many of the 200 organizations that have visited in the past, including alcohol recovery groups, family groups, meditation groups, art groups and men’s groups, Price said.

Food, she said, “is the hard part … If we can’t feed people, we can’t house them.” Repairs for the dining room are in limbo because of new flood water elevations designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Montecito.

It will be six to eight months before a master plan for La Casa can be completed, Price said; a request for bids will go out next month for an architect to lead the planning effort.

San Ysidro Creek was scoured 10 to 15 feet deeper by the debris flow along La Casa’s eastern boundary: Price calls it “our new little mini Grand Canyon.” But much of the land along the creek may be off-limits for building because of the new flood map, she said.

A few stone staircases near the creek are all that’s left of La Casa’s former two-story administration building, registration office and Casa Regina, a meeting room for 150 people.

“It may cause us to rethink the overall use of the land, with more open space closer to the creek, and more buildings to the west,” Price said.

Glatt said: “Our goal would be to replant and keep the same basic look. This is what was given to us, and we want to honor what was always here. Oak trees will grow. They may not be big trees in my lifetime, but we can give them a good start.”

“How precious it was.” People who go to La Casa call it a “sacred space.” For nearly 75 years, visitors have flocked there in search of spiritual growth.

Todd Capps, whose father, the late Walter Capps, was La Casa’s first non-Catholic and non-female board member, said that even as a boy, the place was unforgettable. On summer days, he and his sister, Lisa, would do a little work in exchange for a couple of hours in the pool.

“It was the highlight of my childhood,” Capps said. “The magic, the way the canyon comes down, the vortex of energy that everyone feels. It seeps in while you’re there. Now that it’s gone, people realize how precious it was.”

La Casa is not “gone.” But half the property was hit hard in the pre-dawn deluge of Jan. 9, when a mass of mud and boulders jumped the creek on the San Ysidro Ranch, a private resort that lies just above the retreat in the Montecito foothills.

The wall of debris broke a gas main along the ranch boundary with La Casa, and a huge explosion lit up the sky. For the sleeping community below, it was the first sign that something was terribly wrong.

The creek overflowed its banks again on La Casa’s property, and a torrent of mud and boulders raced down Randall Road, killing two people, then down the west end of Glen Oaks Drive, killing two more. In all, 23 people died across Montecito on Jan. 9.

At noon the day before, a restoration crew at La Casa had finally finished cleaning up the damage caused by smoke and ash from the Thomas Fire. Price saw the workers off, then remained with a caretaker on the western side of the property overnight. When the debris flow hit at about 3:40 a.m., they were unharmed.

Some of the debris that has recently been hauled away from La Casa in hundreds of truckloads has included mangled piles of linens, golf carts, wine bottles, a transformer and parts of destroyed cottages from the San Ysidro Ranch. Seven drawers full of ranch files were returned intact.

The Center for Spiritual Renewal, the two-story stone house from the old estate, now marks “the dividing line between what I call the sublime and the surreal, what’s covered with debris,” Price said. It can serve 18 overnight guests; a closed courtyard door and grates over the basement window wells blocked most of the mud from pouring in on Jan. 9.

Repairs on three guest room buildings where 40 people can stay will be finished in the fall, the directors said. La Casa’s rock-lined labyrinth is intact, and so is a dorm that is being used as office space. Some oak groves survived the flow; and the organic orchards on the western half of the property produced a bumper crop of lemons and limes this year.

“We just need to get through one winter and see how it goes,” Glatt said.

Holding onto hope. On July 7, a group of trainees in techniques for stabilizing trauma and stress were the first to return to La Casa for a half-day workshop led by Capacitar, a Soquel, Calif.-based international nonprofit group.

Capacitar has been coming to La Casa for 15 years, drawn by “the beauty of the land, the ancient trees, and the warm, welcoming sense of hospitality,” said Pat Cane, the founder and executive director.

In the wake of the Jan. 9 disaster, Cane said, La Casa “will represent so much by way of holding that spirit of hope.”

Also last month, seven men and women, members of the Cistercians, a Catholic order that runs its own retreats, spent a week at La Casa’s main house.

This spring, Ed Bastian, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Antioch University Santa Barbara and a former teacher of meditative practices at La Casa, organized an online course that raised $13,000 for the retreat, entitled “Coping and Thriving with Catastrophe”

About 450 students signed up to hear from Bastian, who teaches Buddhism, and from well-known teachers of Jewish, Sufi, Hindu, Christian and intrareligious faiths.

The scope of the damage at La Casa was “just beyond anything you can really conceive of,” Bastian said, noting that Buddhism is known for its “four noble truths,” and “the first is the truth of suffering.”

“A Buddhist would look at that reality head-on and accept it,” Bastian said. La Casa, he said, now has “a unique opportunity to re-envision their programming and rebuild, to model the way of restoring oneself after a catastrophe.”

A ceremony of healing. For the upcoming public ceremony at La Casa on Aug. 6, the Sadako Peace Garden has been dug out of the mud. It’s a grouping of low stone walls where people can sit under a huge eucalyptus – a “mother tree” that survived the debris flow – and look up at the mountains.

An elementary school in Manhattan Beach has donated 1,000 origami paper cranes to hang around the garden.

The cranes are a worldwide symbol of peace; they honor Sadako Sasaki, the Hiroshima survivor who launched the tradition before she died of leukemia in 1955 at the age of 12. The event will be co-sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a Santa Barbara-based international nonprofit group.

“It’s going to be particularly touching to be sitting in the peace garden that experienced such destruction,” Price said. “It’s an opportunity to reconnect with people who love us, for our own healing and the healing of our community.”

Melinda Burns is an environmental reporter based in Santa Barbara.

Images: The inside of the iconic chapel after the debris flow (Mike Eliason, SB County Fire Dept.); Nine of La Casa's 17 buildings were destroyed - these three guest houses survived (Eliason); Stephanie Glatt (Melinda Burns); The mud was four feet high in the chapel after the debris flow (this and next four photos by Burns); Anne Price stands near San Ysidro Creek, which was scoured 10-15 feet deeper; Stone stairs are all that is left of the Administration building; A doorway in the Center for Spiritual Renewal looks out on hundreds of boulders deposited by the debris flow; An enormous boulder crashed into one corner of the chapel on Jan. 9; The first study group to return after the disaster (Sarah Kidwell); The muddied inscription in the Sadako Peace Garden - “I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world," (Burns).

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