LEIPZIG, Sask. – The sounds of conversation and music can once again be heard in the hardwood hallways, high-ceilinged rooms and expansive grounds of the Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Leipzig.
Dan and Ardyth Clark and their friend, Gary Corkum, bought the four storey concrete and brick building set on six acres of spruce, maple and elm-covered grounds in August 2008.
They are using their own money, know-how and elbow grease to turn the provincial heritage building into the Leipzig Serenity Retreat.
The imposing edifice’s red brick exterior looks much the same as it did Dec. 28, 1927.
“The most important thing about this story is the enduring strength of this building,” Ardyth Clark said.
“It’s a place that has a lot more life left in it.”
History is repeating itself in the 82-year-old towering prairie landmark, which remains a symbol of the vision and hopes of the early pioneers.
“It has come full circle,” Clark said.
“It was opened as a school for children to learn. It is a school of sorts again because we’re trying to teach people how to reintegrate into society without using drugs or alcohol.”
All three business partners have battled with addiction.
“For the past 15 years we have been taking people into our home to assist them to stay clean and sober and showing them it can be done in a safe, healthy, family environment,” Clark said.
“When we found this building, we realized we could be self supporting by operating a bed and breakfast, holding conferences and retreats, and continue to do what we love, which is to help people to achieve and maintain sobriety.”
The mission at Leipzig first opened Aug. 26, 1926, with the arrival of four nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught school and lived out of temporary quarters until the permanent structure was built.
A church announcement Jan. 21, 1927, asked farmers to bring loads of sand and gravel to build the convent.
By May, farmers had plowed the prairie sod for the building site, and on July 14, the concrete was poured for the foundation. July 24 marked the blessing and placement of the corner stone.
On Nov. 1, the first fire was lit in the massive coal fired boiler in the basement and the large concrete cross was placed above the front door.
It cost $87,000 to build the 40 room, 20,000 sq. foot convent.
In the early years, it accommodated 20 girls and boys from the Leipzig area for elementary school. Parents took them home on weekends.
It eventually became a residence only for high school girls. The school was also available to day students from the community, and the sisters continued to teach in the elementary school.
The convent boarding school became obsolete when the provincial education department created larger school units and provided bus transportation.
Local residents gathered to say goodbye to the School Sisters of Notre Dame in June 1969. Contents were soon auctioned off and the building locked.
Over the next 40 years, new owners included farmers, a dentist and a baker. It was bought and abandoned three times and twice Americans have owned it with visions of using it as a hunting lodge.
The new owners faced a daunting task.
Most of the damage to the top three floors was caused by a lack of heat and maintenance. As well, many windows were broken.
The three partners bring their strengths to the business and restoration.
“We all have our own areas,” Ardyth Clark said.
“Dan has made the outside beautiful. Gary has made the inside beautiful. I draw the people in and deal with the families. I’m the gopher.”
Corkum said the partners have spent more than $200,000 on building materials.
They spend $2,000 a month to heat the building, another $500 on electricity and $200 for insurance. A new water system cost $11,000.
“The maintenance in this building is never ending,” Corkum said.
“It’s one room at a time. That’s all I look at. I only have the top floor left.”
Added Clark: “I think our philosophy from AA being one day at a time carries over into this to be a one room at a time. And with each room we’ve done is the payoff.”
Visitors have been welcome since the project began. Clark said 1,400 people have dropped by for a tour and local residents have been supportive.
Many of them attended school in the building or are descendants of the farmers who built it.
Ardyth said she received a phone call from a nun who was one of the last to leave in 1969.
“She said to me ‘the day we left we went into the chapel and we prayed as a group that someday this building would once again be used as a house of learning and healing. And I’ve waited 40 years, sweetheart. Thank you.’ ”
The partners would like to find the original pews and other items from the chapel.
Historical artifacts such as photographs and wall calendars would also be appreciated.