The often-dry lake that greets visitors at San Juan Bautista’s St. Francis Retreat is now filled with water and recently appointed executive director Ben Combs plans to keep it that way from now on. Water will be pumped up from a well and filtered through wood chips made from tree trimmings, providing a secure habitat for native wildlife.
It’s only one of the ways Combs is working to enhance the ecological and artistic values of the retreat in an effort that so far includes an artist/musician in residence, six sheep, 44 goats and one emu.
While hoping one day to be a friar, Combs’ background is in financing startups. He came to the retreat last May to visit Father Ken Laverone, the former director, who offered him the job.
“He took me up to the Hermitage and said just spend the afternoon here in prayer and meditation,” Combs said. “I had dinner with him and we talked for two hours. He said, ‘Would you want to be the executive director of this place?’ I was leaving for Pleasanton to finalize a deal on a startup and suddenly, I was at a crossroads in my heart. I thought, ‘This might be crazy and I don’t know if he’s serious, but I have to lean into it.’”
He took the position in August and started thinking of what he could do to honor the history of the place and improve the visitor experience outside of the four acres they regularly see on the 73-acre site.
“The foundation of this place is not built on sand,” Combs said. “I hope this place becomes a place for peace and retreat for more of the community. I’ve met people that have been coming here for three or four generations, people who came here with their parents or grandparents on a retreat here and now they’re bringing their own kids.”
Because a third of the retreat’s visitors are artists, one of his goals is to establish regular residencies. The first artist in residence is Alejandro Bassi, a musician who has written songs for and worked with groups like Los Tigres del Norte. His work also appears on two Grammy Award-winning albums. He came to St. Francis on a retreat three years ago from Colombia. After donating one large painting to the retreat, he started selling his work at the gift shop and began his work as an artist/volunteer four months ago.
Using tin cans salvaged from local restaurants, then cleaned out, flattened and fastened together to form a canvas, Bassi uses a propane torch to cut the outlines of his drawings which he then paints to create the final work.
“I went to a fine arts school back in Colombia,” Bassi said, “but I developed this technique after watching a woman in Palm Springs working with luminaries. I thought, ‘That is amazing,’ I fell in love with this kind of work, but I wanted to elevate it from folkcraft to a more artistic level.”
Bringing the retreat back to nature is also important to Combs. Just up the hill from the barn where Bassi works is an area that acts as the base camp for a roving herd of animals belonging to Billy Thibodeau. She was flooded out of her Lost Emu Farms in Watsonville this winter and connected to Combs through Janet Locey, who has been holding quilting retreats at St. Francis for decades.
“I needed to evacuate my pasture because it was knee-deep in mud,” Thibodeau said. “All of my structures were destroyed as well. Here the animals can spend hours grazing through these woods without being fenced in and we can walk them through the landscape.”
For Combs, the menagerie was a perfect match for the retreat.
“It had been on my radar to bring animals to the property to manage woodlands. If you look around, you can see how overgrown it is and that is a huge fire risk,” he said. “And the hills are littered with poison oak as well, so it is hard to get in and clean it up. They can take care of and manage the land and they also eat all the food waste. That closes a loop for us. St. Francis, who is the patron saint of pets and animals, would be pleased, I think.”
Students have had a chance to come up to the retreat for a lesson in land management and, Combs said, visitors enjoy being around the animals.
“A lot of people are not used to being in this kind of environment,” he said. “Here, they have a chance to walk alongside the goats and sheep. It’s just it’s been very therapeutic and they’ve loved it. And we hope, with the lake, to create an environment and a habitat for both animals and people to enjoy.”
As the church is an expression of the faith-based community, Combs wants the retreat to be an expression that will similarly touch people’s souls.
“I hope I can make this place speak to people in a new way,” he said.
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