Less Traveled 2012

Ernie Wiggins



Springbank Retreat offers a spiritual break in beautiful setting

Posted 6/27/2011 6:42:00 AM

It was a warm Carolina June day when I visited Springbank Retreat in Kingstree.

Cypress House, the center’s main structure, sits at the end of a narrow road bordered by mossy live oaks and magnolias. Trina McCormick, a Dominican nun, dropped ice cubes into water glasses for herself, Judy Markiewicz of the order of Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur, Franciscan Sister Jeanne Nisley and their just arrived guest.

McCormick, Markiewicz and Nisley are three of the five women who run the 80-acre center that offers structured and unstructured retreats for travelers of all faiths and backgrounds looking for a place to get away from hustle, bustle and city lights, a place to reflect and create.

McCormick, who has been with Springbank for 25 years, directs and develops the center’s programming and course offerings and has guided the growth of its Native American eco-spiritual focus.

“We’re about the sacredness of life and the sacredness of creation,” McCormick said.

Evidence of that is all about. The Cosmic Walk trail through the woods west of Cypress House features markers that countdown creation, from the beginning to the present. This trail connects with others that take visitors to sites for reflection, including a medicine wheel, a circle of trees and a 12-step path for recovering addicts.

Also on the grounds is a burial ground and a live oak believed to be between 800 and 1,100 years old under whose boughs visitors are encouraged to “rest, relax and renew.”

Located on the site of an 18th-century plantation, Springbank Retreat was originally run by men to train other men for service in the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1960s, the center also was the site of social outreach in Williamsburg County for health and education. The center was closed in 1979 and reopened in 1986, when it was deeded to an ecumenical board with the stipulation that it be operated as a retreat center.

Women have been in charge of the center since then, McCormick said, and have overseen the physical expansion of Springbank from just a handful of structures to 16, most of which are used lodging and meeting space for retreats and conferences.

Markiewicz has been with Springbank for about seven years and is responsible for maintaining the center’s buildings and grounds. On that hot day, she had just returned from clearing brush from the path that runs along the swamp north of the center. Markiewicz, who traces her roots to the Ojibwa tribe, also teaches workshops steeped in Native American tradition, including drum-making, a sacred ritual.

“We bless the hinds and frame with sage,” she said, to thank the animals and trees from which the materials came. She said some people might have trouble embracing the merging of these religious traditions, but adds that in her experience it’s been easier for women in religious orders to explore and embrace more global views toward spiritual matters..

“I think it’s because (women working in the church) have always been out there among the people,” she said.

A former hospital administrator, Nisley manages the center’s office and is Springbank’s gardener. That day, she toured the gardens just outside her residence – the oldest standing structure on the property -- and said that the squash and tomatoes, rosemary and sage all needed watering.

The center’s appeal has grown internationally, Nisley said. Recent guests have been from Peru, South Africa and Nicaragua, among other locales. The reason is simple, she said, “We provide enriching programs for them.”

And, she later said, being removed from city life allows visitors space to explore. “It’s wonderful out here because there are no city lights .. you can actually see the stars at night.”

Springbank offers a unique variety of experiences from extended sabbaticals; studio space for writers, painters and poets; and even degree programs for those interested in ecological issues.

Springbank staff will prepare meals for guests, but those who want to fix their own are lodged in cabins equipped with kitchens. The nightly rate for lodging at Springbank is about $55, Nisley said. For more information visit the center’s website or call (800) 671-0361.