GilChrist Retreat Center to host book signing

Molly Vass-Lehman (Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

GilChrist Retreat Center, located on 67 acres in Fabius Township, has been hosting individuals and groups on spiritual retreats for 28 years. One of its founders, Molly Vass-Lehman, decided to write a book about it, and will be hosting a book signing and open house on Saturday, October 15 from 2-4 p.m. to celebrate the book’s publication. 

GilChrist: A Place to Remember is “a book that tells the story of GilChrist, how it came to be, the countless people who contributed to the creation and the stories that shaped it. People from all walks of life find their way to GilChrist for different reasons: they come to rest, to heal, to celebrate, for renewal, and to remember what is essential in life.”

Watershed Voice sat down with Vass-Lehman to talk about GilChrist, the book, and the process by which it came to be.

Before GilChrist’s founding, Vass-Lehman and her husband, Rob Lehman, lived and worked in Kalamazoo but frequently visited St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers and admired the land in the area. Lehman wondered what it would be like to buy land nearby in order to be closer to the Abbey.

Vass-Lehman was initially resistant to the idea due to their commitments in Kalamazoo, but through “many circuitous routes,” the couple acquired property nearby and built a cabin as a place for Vass-Lehman to conduct psycho-spiritual counseling. As people visited, they expressed interest in staying in the cabin.

At the same time, Lehman was employed at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, which was leading conferences on “monastic living and everyday life.” At one of the gatherings, Vass-Lehman was speaking with Sister GilChrist Lavigne, a Trappist nun and close friend. “[Sister GilChrist] said, ‘You know, there’s a real need for lay-monastic types of retreat centers. Could y’all really think about trying to do something like that?’ And so that was the seed for it,” and the center came to bear the nun’s name.

The original cabin would be the first of eight cabins, a Stone Chapel, and a large gathering building called WindHill. Vass-Lehman emphasized that without the generosity of contractors, volunteers, and other helpers, GilChrist would not be what it is today. “It’s a miracle we’re even here,” she said, speaking of all the ways that things could have gone wrong or led to different endings, but worked out favorably.

In 1994, when life circumstances changed for Molly and Rob which made upkeep at GilChrist difficult, the decision was made to merge GilChrist with the Fetzer Institute. “At first it was hard for all of us to let go and say, ‘This is a good thing to mesh it with Fetzer.’ But we realized that it’ll be the way that will sustain this forever, when it’s very hard for places [like GilChrist] to continue to exist, and make it affordable for people to still come.”

When asked what sparked the idea for the book, Vass-Lehman said it was originally intended to be part of a larger memoir starting from her childhood in West Virginia, and included writing on topics like contemplation and healing, but eventually she decided to focus solely on GilChrist.

What she found most challenging about writing the book was trying to distill all the stories from GilChrist’s history and to “capture the essence” of the experiences of the guests who have stayed there on retreat. “It’s a very small book, you know, with very few stories, but it’s representative of the thousands of stories [of guests]. And, I really felt like, that’s it – that’s the focus. We need to try to express in some way the miracle [of GilChrist’s creation].” Another challenge was the long editing process, and trying to explain to the publisher her vision for the book.

She said she attempted to tell the story about one particular place with a universal lens. “This is about a place but it’s really about a whole way of seeing the world. It’s about a way of being, and what contemplation is, and awareness. And it doesn’t matter whether you go to a retreat center, or you find that in nature, or you find that wherever you are, through whatever you’re doing.”

She said she draws inspiration from the courage of people who are willing to “leave their lives” while on retreat and “really hear the voice inside” while they’re navigating difficult experiences. “They come and they’re willing to go through the process of sitting – which is very hard – and walking – which is very hard – when you have to take the stimulation away, and to really hear the voice inside. And so I think what I’m most proud of, is the inspiration that’s here.”

The hope that Vass-Lehman holds for readers of the book is that they will be able to understand what is really important in their lives. “I had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages over the four-and-a-half years of working on it, but it’s 72 written pages, and 42 photographs, and that’s, you know, that’s the definition of simplicity. And that’s what we hope people, when they come here, they experience it and they know that they can remember what’s really important and essential in life, and they can see other ways of living, and they can heal, and nature can help them. And they can have communion with other people on that journey. So, it deserves a story.”

GilChrist Retreat Center is located at 56265 Day Rd. in Three Rivers. The book signing and open house will take place at the WindHill building on GilChrist’s grounds from 2 to 4 on Sunday, October 15. 

Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.