Bumping along the grounds of La Casa de Maria in a golf cart with Cindy Faith Swain, the retreat center looks lovely and calm on its 26 acres with groves of citrus and oak trees interspersed with buildings of white stucco or cut stone — until the pathway nears San Ysidro Creek. There, Swain points downslope to where the blue Pacific is visible in the far distance. “We lost 120 oaks and sycamores here,” the retreat center director says. “We couldn’t see the ocean before the debris flow.”
Next to San Ysidro Creek, which blasted over its banks during the tragic debris flows in Montecito on January 9, 2018, nine of Casa de Maria’s buildings vanished along with the trees, and 14 acres were buried in mud and boulders. Fortunately, the center had evacuated its staff and about 100 guests that night, but farther downstream four people lost their lives. Now, heavy equipment rumbles and clanks a block away as they excavate a new debris dam on Randall Road, being built in the hope of preventing flooding in the future.
This Thursday was a day to celebrate the start of Casa de Maria’s work through a new water grant and the groundbreaking for a 150,000-gallon cistern for the retreat center’s organic orchards and landscaping. They’d been awarded the grant from the state Wildlife Conservation Board just five months before the debris flow, and Swain told a small crowd of supporters gathered for the ceremony, “We had to call them and say there’d been a change in circumstance.” The wildlife board okayed redacting the cisterns set for the now-destroyed buildings and allowed Casa de Maria to restructure their drainage and recycling plans instead.
The Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow were only the most recent threats to the women who run La Casa de Maria. The property was purchased by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1943, who opened a novitiate in 1955 to instruct young women, many of whom became teachers. By the 1960s, the sisters had ideas about education, attire, and prayer — both for the novitiates and their students — that disagreed with those of Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, explained Stephanie Glatt, Casa de Maria’s former executive director. (A new film, Rebel Hearts, tells their story at the Laemmle Glendale for one week starting on Friday; came highly recommended at Sundance; and is streaming on Discovery+ — free for seven days, said Glatt.) The sisters had incorporated their properties as nonprofits, and as lay members have held on to them as the Immaculate Heart Community, which will continue to run La Casa de Maria, as soon as it’s back on its feet, as a spiritual retreat center for all faiths.
The past three years have been spent moving drifts of mud nearly two stories high and enormous boulders — one of which swam within feet of crashing into the chapel walls. Casa de Maria will avoid rebuilding near the creek, devoting that area to trees, and plans to replace the dining hall and kitchen, and meeting rooms and sleeping quarters, farther upslope. When not actively digging, the community has been making plans and raising funds for the $75 million plan to restore the grounds.
The enormous cistern project is just the first step in the years-long process to bring Casa de Maria back, but it’s emblematic of their approach. Karol Schulkin, who leads the community of “about 112 women and 11 brave men,” described their calling as “prayer and service to the world we live in and our times.” The water-conserving cisterns, in these times of drought, was part of their ethos to “live responsibly, both in relation to other people and the environment,” in a place they hope to share again soon with guests in search of solace and revival.