Jesus, There Goes The Neighbourhood

Nuns at the cottage
Nuns at the cottage

The hills are alive with the sound of Sea-Doos, float planes and motorboats. The thud of hammers also echoes through the maple trees, testament to the development taking place on and around Muskoka’s posh Lake Joseph.

The Sound of Music it isn’t.

And yet in the midst of all this Jet Ski-age glamour is a scene so serene, it stops celebrity-seekers trawling the lake in search of a photo op. There, on a decidedly plain dock of their own, a canoe bobbing languidly on the nearby shore, a group of nuns in colourful hats and bathing suits lounges in the sun.

On a recent summer day, there were about 20 in total, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph taking time out of their busy schedule of charitable works to indulge in some R and R at Marygrove, their vacation property situated across the water from the upscale Lake Joseph Club.

Most have been making the journey north from their base in Hamilton since 1975, when the Roman Catholic order first purchased the building, a former resort built in the art moderne style in 1937, as a vacation property. This is where they come to read, quietly swim, eat butter tarts, watch videos (including The Bells of St. Mary’s) and pray.

Even as their numbers are shrinking – there hasn’t been a new recruit to the order in more than 14 years – the nuns, whose average age is 75, maintain a centre of calm in an area that is becoming some of the most expensive real estate in the country. But while the image of the sisters among the saplings may be quaint, a controversy has developed over the nuns’ effort to sell the property, which has become too big for their dwindling numbers to handle.

The nuns’ quiet presence makes them stand out even to the locals, who call the wedding cake of a building “the nunnery” as they unload their fishing boats from an adjacent public launch. “You’d hardly know they were here,” says one passerby. “They seem to blend in with the trees.”

For a year now, the sisters have been trying to sell Marygrove and its 10 hectares. “When they first had Marygrove, there were about 200 sisters,” says their spokeswoman, Cynthia Janzen. “Now there are less than 80 and most of the sisters are elderly and the second floor of the building isn’t wheelchair accessible.”

There is no price tag on the property because its future uses are not clear, explains Joe Barnicke, whose real estate agency, J. J. Barnicke, is listing the property. “It could take four individual lots or it could be a multi-use facility to be used as a timeshare,” he says. “Those are two different things with two different prices. We have an idea of what that price should be, but I won’t disclose that.”

(For comparison’s sake, Tamwood Resort in Muskoka sold for $4.25-million back in 1998, according to real estate agent Will Jephcott, co-agent on the Marygrove listing. Tamwood had 1,000 feet of waterfront, whereas Marygrove has over 1,400 feet of shoreline. Marygrove, however, is not zoned as a resort.)

It’s this uncertainty that has the townspeople worried about Marygrove’s fate. Known as Glen Home Resort before the nuns purchased it 30 years ago from the son of the original owner, Lambert Love, an early Muskoka tourism pioneer, the building “is of rare style and significance,” says Liz Lundell, an area historian and member of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation.

But the order has disagreed with that assessment, and succesfully asked town council to vote against making the site a historic property. “The sisters were opposed to a designation because they did not believe Marygrove had historical or architectural interest,” says their spokeswoman, Ms. Janzen.

The complex was designed as a Christian resort destination by Horwood & White, a Toronto architecture firm known for its Chicago-style commercial buildings. With an interior featuring art deco plasterwork and original art moderne lighting fixtures – still in good condition even now – the resort shows up in old postcards with elegantly dressed guests taking tea out on the deck.

And tea was about as hard as the drinking got. Mr. Love, a Methodist, built a chapel on the premises, which the sisters still use today, though it is now filled with Catholic icons of the Virgin Mary and the Blessed Heart of Jesus.

In a report she penned for Muskoka Town Council last year when Marygrove was being considered for a historic designation, Ms. Lundell wrote that Marygrove “is a property of cultural heritage value… presents a unique example of the Streamline Moderne architectural style in Muskoka; and has strong associations with an activity and person that have made a significant contribution to the community.”

This week, Ms. Janzen chose not to respond to the details of Ms. Lundell’s opinion. “I think we need to go beyond that,” she said. “It was the town that made the decision not to force [heritage status]on them.”

Indeed, judgment day for the property came in June of last year, when the Township of Muskoka Lakes council voted against designating it with historic status. Members of the township-appointed Heritage Committee, in place since 2001, promptly quit. As reported in The Bracebridge Examiner, they cited council’s repeated reluctance to move forward on heritage designation requests, including the Tamwood Inn and Marygrove, as the chief motivation for their resignations: “We really wanted to take steps to preserve Muskoka’s valuable heritage, but found that the township did not share our commitment,” former heritage committee chair Janet Amos was reported as saying. Today, according to Ms. Lundell, there are only two designated properties in the township.

Now, Ms. Janzen says, the nuns want to sell the resort and purchase a smaller recreational property closer to Hamilton. Any remaining monies from the sale would go toward caring for elderly nuns within their own order, and toward their charitable work. Assigning a heritage designation to the resort would delay the process, she notes, and also impose upon them financial hardship – a point Ms. Lundell disputes. “First of all, the nuns have already done a great job in preserving the property,” she says. “It’s lucky they were the caretakers for the last 30 years and not someone who might have wanted to bulldoze it a long time ago.” Further, she says, the Ontario Heritage Act “states that there is no burden on the owner of a designated property to restore it beyond what would be normal upkeep.”

As a positive example, Ms. Lundell cites the newly restored Bala Bay Inn, another period property that could have died a death by neglect, but instead was rescued last year by Kim Ward, a second-generation hotelier. For her part, Ms. Ward says, “I can tell you that the hotel business is tough. You can’t go into it for the quick buck, as many businesses in Muskoka do. You have to think long-term and you have to do it almost as a labour of love.”