In our scenic drive of 45 minutes from just north of San Francisco by 17 miles, we three traveled the wooded and frequently winding road to meet with The Reverend Doctor Robert L. Weldy, Jr. Rector of St. Columba’s Church and Retreat. A destination for many who wish a more remote retreat at the rural and accessible, if not somewhat secluded area Inverness, California, Photographer and architect Terry Peck drove. This Religion Writer’s assistant Linda Shirado came along for various duties, including her plan to make us a picnic lunch near the beach. Note the boat beached on the shore, a picturesque sight near our picnic bench not far as a picnic site from the retreat building proper. A seagull joined us duing our meal, but waited in vain for some snacks from us. I think we overlooked giving the bird some tidbits, but maybe did that for she didn’t get too close. I still feel a little guilty about not sharing lunch. Terry and Linda took a walk on the beach of Tomales Bay, while I enjoyed being alone.
We were to meet Rector Father Robert, but mishaps and events called him away, and we found on this weekday visit just we three in the building, with an opportunity to explore on our own. A visitor and his wife showed up while we were there and told how he’d returned after 40 years away, this his childhood Parish. He was delighted to be there, and it showed this is a memorable place to visit and stay. His wife poked here and there enjoying the wood, the windows, the light, the stonework. They spent some time in the Church upstairs and the Chapel, too. This was a home away from home for them.
In the interview that follows with The Reverend Doctor Weldy, we took the quiet and peace of the area and building in, spending two hours. Unfortunately the interview had to be done later, as he was absent on the business of a Priest. It’s wasn’t until Linda visited the Rectory and asked Father Robert’s wife where he might be that we learned he’d been called away. We were disappointed.
INTERVIEW WITH THE REVEREND DOCTOR ROBERT L. WELDY, JR. BY PETER MENKIN
- 1. In thinking about your retreat and Church, tell us something of your background as Rector and how you came to this Parish? Are you not a man from the South of the United States, and what was your reaction to Inverness, California in Marin County, north of San Francisco when you got there on Sir Francis Drake Blvd? We’ll come to where you lived and served the Episcopal Church in another question. What is wanted is for you to tell us how you felt on your initial visits about the retreat and Church. That will introduce readers who may visit to how they, too, may find it.
My wife and I were living in Alaska when we made our initial site visit to St. Columba's. We were both overwhelmed with the peace and sense of sacredness of the facility. We had flown in the day before and spent the night at a vestry member's house. We were excited to see the buildings and grounds. As we drove through the red wood forest on Lucas Valley Rd., we were enchanted but the natural beauty of West Marin. The church was equally enchanting and inspiring. The sacred space of a church is typically seen as a silent partner in worship; St. Columba’s is much more active. The structure of a 10,000 sq. ft. building constructed of red wood has an impact on the eye, the ear (acoustics) and the olfactory senses. It was built in 1929 and the church purchased the property in 1950. Having lived in Alaska, the remoteness of the area was not a concern for us. This is my first post as Rector. I have served as assisting priest and or interim at 4 other churches.
- 2. Where, Father Robert, are you at the retreat center located vis a vis San Francisco? This Religion Writer is told that your main building was soldto the Parish by a local family, the Fricks. Do they still attend your Church? Describe for us something of your Chapel, and tell us about the Church itself. Give us a physical sense, like all the wood, the stone, the windows, the light. How many come for Sunday service, and as an Episcopal Church congregation do they pretty much fill the Church every Sunday? What do visitors tell you about the beauty and uniqueness of the area where you are located, and why was St. Columba chosen as a retreat center by the Diocese of California?
St. Columba's has been in Inverness for about 115 years. Prior to the current location, the old church was in a house up the hill on Cameron Street.
Robert Frick had 4 daughters and thought this would be a good location for their weddings. He built the house as a summer home and where we have our sanctuary is their living room. It looks like the Nave of a church (he built it to look like a church for the weddings of his daughters). I do not believe that the Frick family were ever members of the church. I understand that 2 of the daughters were married here.
Our parish is a rather traditional Anglo-Catholic. We alternate Rite I and Rite II services every other Sunday. The congregation has about 60 members, but only about 1/3 live in the Inverness area full time. About another 1/3 have cottages and come out on the weekends or for vacation add the remaining 1/3 travel from Oakland, Santa Rosa, Fairfax, and as far as Antioch (we have 3 families from here who make it out about 10 times a year). We also have several members who divide their time between Inverness and France, and Denmark. Our average Sunday attendance is about 30.
The main sanctuary is made up of clear redwood (old growth without any knot holes) and was put together with copper nails and wooden pegs. The most striking feature is the HUGE Botticelli hanging over the high altar. It is a copy painted by a past member of the church. The pews were made by one of the members and the ends were cut to resemble breaking waves (we are very close to the ocean).
Off of the sanctuary, we have a smaller chapel that is our Mary Chapel. The sanctuary will seat about 75 and the Mary Chapel will seat about 25. The church was purchased in 1950 for $29,500. There are eight acres of property. The parking lot and driveway from Sir Frances Drake Blvd were not a part of the original configuration. Originally, you accessed the property from the top of the hill and that is why the front door is on the side of the sanctuary.
- 3. Let’s talk a moment about living in a retreat area. I note by your website for St. Columba (http://www.stcolumbachurch.com/weldy_bio.htm ) you served the Church in Alaska prior to coming to Inverness. Was that a remote area, and do you find Inverness a remote place. Your website reads: Robert is married to Candace Weldy, M.A. Ed, who served in numerous educational positions in Alaska, including Vice Principal, Principal and Director of Education for Lemmon Creek Correctional Center, a maximum security facility located in Juneau, Alaska. They have no children, but they have a wonderful Ragdoll/Norwegian Forest cat named Houdini. Sell readers on visiting for retreat at St. Columba. Is it that it is remote? The facilities? The lovely location? This is also a chance to talk about your own ministry and policies of the Parish life and of retreat visiting.
Alaska is a remote location that is described not as rural but rather, frontier. Inverness has some of the same feel with the exception that we have a road system that can get you to the city in a little over an hour. It is quiet out here and that adds to the Holiness of the property.
In Alaska, you learn how to entertain yourself. There are no movie theaters out here, just woods, and some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. I enjoy hiking and walking along the various beaches.
At the beach, like in Alaska, you can see whales, seals and other marine wild life. My wife, Candace, is an educator by education and training. She has an MA in Education and a Specialist Certificate in Reading. She has taught from kindergarten to adult education. She has been a Principal, Vice-Principal, Directed the Education Department at Lemmon Creek Correctional Center (a maximum security prison in Juneau AK) and was the Director of Vocational Rehabilitation at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
Houdini is our cat. We got him from the humane society in Juneau and he is very smart, scary smart. We named him because he knows how to un-latch the pet Carrier. He will walk on a leash when he feels like it, when he is tired; he knows how to push off his collar and leash! Living at a retreat house is exciting.
I am the rector, admin asst., simple handy man, custodian and gardener. Thanks be to God, I have some great help from the parish. This church has a rich history of its members working in the gardens, making art work, and doing construction for all of the many building repair projects that go on out here. The job of the Jr. Warden is very important here and we have had many great ones over the years. Hospitality is a major focus of our ministry.
- 4. The $50 per night individual cost for a retreat is so attractive. There really isn’t a catch because one brings one’s own food and cooks it in the retreat kitchen. In this day and time, one can call that a bargain if not a delicious price given all that is at St. Columba’s. Who takes care of maintaining all this area and the retreat facilities itself? Do the parishioners volunteer to do the job—how would you call the retreat ministry, Parishioner driven? How so? How far away is the closest store to buy food, if readers may be interested to visit, for that is a key need for a two day stay or more, usually?
The Church … the biggest ministry of the Church is the retreat ministry. The idea is by keeping the rates low more people could be able to afford it, come out here. We do have a lot of Church groups come out here. This is a way to help the Church groups as a silent partner. We have Episcopal Churches, Presbyterian Churches, Evangelical Churches—just a wide variety and they come out here and bring their leadership out here. We get a few confirmation classes out here. They usually try to schedule a retreat during a Rite 1 Sunday. They usually use a Rite II service. This gives them a little different service. We usually chant the Psalms, and are not as contemporary with our music as Rite II.
The our current Prayer Book is more Elizabethan language and King James where Rite II is more contemporary English. In Rite 1 we use the hymnal and chant the Psalms, and some have written music themselves, such as Parishioner David Robinson. Over the years he has jammed with Maria Muldaur and Jefferson Airplane. He is a very talented musician.
When we open the Eucharistic Prayer, one thing that stands out is, in the Rite II service, we say, It is a right and joyful thing everywhere to give praise and thanks. Rite I reads, It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty….
We invite all of our visitors to attend services with us, but it is not required. All may, none must, and some should.
The closest grocery store is 1/2 mile from St. Columba's. We have a retreat guild and it is lay/volunteer driven. There’s everything from a little bit of fresh produce, and local cheese. Then they have fresh meat, canned goods, and wine. John David Schofield, when he was Rector (later Bishop Schofield) they moved away from allowing alcohol as part of a retreat. We do not normally allow wine with a meal. Couples who come here usually identify themselves as married, but that is not something we ask.
- 5. Thank you for letting readers get to know something about your retreat, Church and of course making your acquaintance. Hopefully, some readers will find this a little bit of a travel story, but more a destination for them for travel. At this point, we are at the end of the interview. If there is something you’d like to add, please do so here.
A ten minute drive from St. Columba’s there are wonderful beaches, many hiking trails and we’re right across the main road from Tomales Bay (opens up to the Pacific Ocean, and prior to the 1906 earthquake ships came and unloaded. Prior to the earthquake the San Andreas Fault made the bay deeper. The wooden ships came in but when everything shifted there were parts you could walk across. At the nearbyYacht Club, you have to plan your baot launching at the high tide mark.)
The Stations of the Cross start about 100 yards from the Church building. The whole Stations are probably a less than a quarter of a mile:the trail. It terminates at the top of the hill with the big Celtic cross (referred to as the Ionic cross or the Pilgrims Cross). The Stations are made up of Stone, with cedar shingles. We just shingled the stations. They were built sometime in the late 1950s. The story of who built them is the confirmation class of the local Catholic Church and St. Columba’s--all volunteer.
The main building was constructed 1929 and is all old Grove Redwood. Very handsome indeed. The stonework, the glasswork (two made by parishioners—one of which is the Church overlooking Tomales Bay). The Church itself reflects the local landmarks such as the big redwood tree in front (our steeple); the stained glass overlooking the altar shows the redwood tree in front). The stained glass of Mary that was contemporary is also done by a parishioner.
The retreat is a near universal experience, the peace and solitude of this sacred space seems to permeate within the building and ground.
I’ve never travelled to Scotland, but this is a very lush, green area. We’re at the beginning of spring; the plum trees are blooming, and looking out the dining room window in the Rectory, magnificent trees with moss hanging off them. In the summer we’ll have a massive crop of BlackBerrys people will enjoy picking when on a walk. People even make blackberry pies when they come out here for their meals.
When we got out here it was late afternoon, kind of an evening sort of thing, and by the time I got through meeting everyone. I couldn’t see the Stations of the Cross, and in the morning walked the stations and got to the top and said some prayers, as I looked down from the top of the cross I noticed this big fire place. I wonder where the chimney is. I thought it was in the cross.
The base of the cross is a life size tomb, the 15th station. Just the emotional feeling of looking at that was just how that is the Easter message for all of us, to have place.
People have given us things: We have a Bible 1811, an altar Prayer Book printed 1669. There are many little treasures to investigate at the retreat area. The Communion cup you use is literally encrusted with precious jewels that were donated by members of the Church. This used solely on Sundays.
We have a group that is separate from the Church we call the Friends of St. Columba. It’s a cross between an alumni association and a third order. It is for anybody who feels a strong connection to the retreat area or the church. They may want a connection out here. You make a donation to the friends, and agree to include St. Columba in part of your daily prayer cycle. There is a day out here with a guided time, and this is a good way to connect. We have friends all over the world, at this point.
To get in touch with us, call us on the Church phone number: 415-669-1039.