Nurturing quake-stressed souls

RETREAT: The Monastery, near Hamilton, is providing respite for earthquake-weary Cantabrians. Dr Gerald Johnstone, left, and Major Brendan Wood.
RETREAT: The Monastery, near Hamilton, is providing respite for earthquake-weary Cantabrians. Dr Gerald Johnstone, left, and Major Brendan Wood.

Dr Gerald Johnstone and Major Brendan Wood wear the laidback look of a couple of blokes on holiday.

There's a lightness about them. Their phones are switched off, they're puddling about in casual checked shirts and shorts, looking forward to an outdoor lunch, then maybe a walk, or a read, or an afternoon snooze.

"It's the lack of responsibility. That's probably the best thing about this," says Johnstone. "To come up here and be nurtured and pampered in a very straightforward way is amazing."

The Monastery, a therapeutic retreat near Hamilton, is providing a free-of-charge retreat for earthquake-weary Cantabrians. 
The Monastery, a therapeutic retreat near Hamilton, is providing a free-of-charge retreat for earthquake-weary Cantabrians. 

"This" is the gift for Johnstone and Wood of a stay at The Monastery, the therapeutic retreat at Tamahere, Hamilton. It is a very welcome change from what Johnstone describes as "the hard phase of dull grind" in their hometown of Christchurch.

While the acute phase of the devastating earthquake of February 22, 2011, may be over, people continue to experience what Johnstone describes as the bruising effects of living in a challenging environment. Auckland friends have asked, "Are you all done now?" He shrugs. What can you say?

The Monastery has not been so glib. For the past two years, it has offered a five-day retreat free of charge to Cantabrians directly affected by the earthquakes.

The Monastery retreat is offering treatment to people who have suffered in the Christchurch earthquake. Grace Hgapo, massage therapist and yoga teacher.
The Monastery retreat is offering treatment to people who have suffered in the Christchurch earthquake. Grace Hgapo, massage therapist and yoga teacher.

The Monastery was established in the Waikato seven years ago for women experiencing stress, depression or trauma, and it is the only residential service of its kind in the country. After the February earthquake, it dedicated its services solely to southerners, caring for both men and women.

Christchurch health professional, Terri Donovan, says The Monastery has been a lifeline for many. Donovan, a senior clinical psychologist working in primary care surgeries through Pegasus Health, says residents are still struggling. Like Gerald Johnstone, she is seeing the "long-haul" stage of the earthquakes and there's no end to it.

"We've seen a marked increase in patients succumbing to stress and developing significant mental-health concerns. For many, there is simply no relief in sight, while some are carrying additional responsibilities in caring for others, as well as struggling to deal with their own post-quake effects and exhaustion. No-one was prepared for how badly this would affect people at all levels."

She has referred clients to The Monastery and encouraged people make contact. She says it has helped people to keep going, to increase their tolerance for uncertainty, to recover some energy, optimism and sense of fun, and develop new ways of thinking around future steps.

"It has been a complete mental shift for some, 100 per cent positive."


More than 350 Cantabrians, usually five at a time, have passed through The Monastery since its Christchurch Project began in May, 2011. The costs, at $1800 per retreat, have been fully met by The Monastery's founder, the Hamilton-based Wise Group.

The Wise Group is one of the country's largest non-government providers of management services in the health and social services areas. It describes itself as a family of charitable entities that creates fresh possibilities and services for the wellbeing of people, organisations and communities.

Its work at The Monastery receives no government funding. It has bookings until December, but has closed its waiting list at this point. Wise joint chief executive Julie Nelson says she and her staff have been overwhelmed by the response to the retreats and would love to provide opportunities to more Cantabrians, but need support to continue beyond December.

So this month, the very private Monastery has gone public to show what it's doing and to, hopefully, win extra commitment for the project. Wise's online donation website, Social Angels, has dedicated March as Monastery Month, raising funds.

In Christchurch, Gerald Johnstone heard about The Monastery through a colleague who had benefited greatly from a stay there and suggested he get in touch. He did and eventually got the good news there was a place for him and his partner, Brendan Wood.

The pair were ready for a break. Wood is the chief instructor at the Defence Force Health School, Burnham Military Camp. He led the Defence Force effort into Christchurch after the February earthquake with four medical teams to support triage. When the quake struck, Wood, who was in the middle of teaching health planning on how to prepare for disasters suddenly had a real-life disaster to deal with.

He worked 16-hour days for the next 10 days, helped with some of the body recovery and saw the havoc and destruction and the phenomenal efforts of "people who just got on with things".

They have lived with 13,000 aftershocks, and the "hyper-adrenalised" response many Cantabrians have developed every time there is a little rumble.

"I'm poised to think what action to take," Wood says. "That's exhausting."

While there are good support services within the Defence Force, the time in Hamilton will be different and invaluable. will be helpful. It's early in his stay, but so far he has received 127 emails on his work phone. He is happily ignoring them.

Johnstone, who works with elderly people in regards to their mental health, at Princess Margaret Hospital, was at work when the February quake struck. He recalls about 10 people all running to stand under one doorway. Then they ran outside, were knocked to the ground and saw cars jumping around the car park.

While he was spared the graphic experiences of Wood and many others in the city centre, he has dealt with much loss, grief and shock through his job.


"There are elderly patients who have lost their homes, their churches, their communities. They will never live to see Christchurch rebuilt. They will die in this chaos."

Johnstone also talks about a loss of innocence in his city: People once trusted the ground and the environment, and now they don't. It is bruising that so much is lost forever. At The Monastery, his goals are to relax, destress and centre himself.

"It's very touching and Kiwi, helping your neighbour," Johnstone says. "It is both humbling and nourishing in its own right."


The Monastery itself is lovely. The spacious, well-maintained cream weatherboard homestead is tucked down a long driveway with a discreet sign at the entrance.

It was built in Hamilton in the 1900s as a private home. In the 1940s it became a wellness retreat, named Peace Haven, and ran for several years after World War II. Then, in the 1950s, it was bought by the Catholic Church for members of the Passionist Order of priests, and became known as The Monastery. New owners rescued it from demolition in 1990 and moved it in five pieces to Tamahere, on a splendid site above the Waikato River. It has been privately owned since then and was refurbished by the Wise Trust.

The extensive landscaped grounds are cared for by husband-and-wife gardening team Steve Cantor and Shona Reid. They grow the vegetables that German-born chef Earl Zapf uses each day in the kitchen.

This Tuesday lunchtime, Zapf is feeding guests with a fresh garden salad starter and melt-in-the-mouth eggplant parmigiana.

"All home-grown," he says.

The Monastery team offers a range of physical therapies, educational workshops and counselling, along with rest, relaxation and good nutrition.

Programmes are tailored for each person, who stays on site from Sunday afternoon until Friday morning.

The aim is for guests to stop, take stock, rejuvenate and reflect, and to integrate some of the experiences and emotional tools into their lives back home. 

Guests have ranged in age from 15 (a teen who came with her mother) to 91. Before the visit, people are asked to rate their wellbeing on a scale of 10. The average is 3. After the visit, the average is 9. One woman came with a negative 1 and left with an 8 or 9.


The following week, Wood is back at work in Christchurch, and describes the "amazing experience" of being at The Monastery. His goal was to have a period of rest and calmness, a complete change from his typically frenetic days, and a change from the "daily torment" of disrupted roads, dust and other stresses of Christchurch.

He achieved this calm, feels back in tune and knows he needs to make a little bit of time each day to think about himself and his mental health.

"It [The Monastery] is such a generous and gracious model. I am feeling very nourished and rested."

Johnstone says he is still enjoying a sense of tranquillity that was not present before the retreat, and the experience exceeded his expectations. "On paper, The Monastery programme looked just what this doctor ordered but, in reality, it was more than this.

"I think it reflects a combination of the inherent beauty of the house and its setting, the integrity and authenticity of the staff, the glorious, nurturing nature of the food, as well as the combination of individual and group therapies and activities."

Johnstone says he and Wood have had a busy time since their return to Christchurch, but the benefits continue. "Many people have commented on how healthy and relaxed we both look."

The Monastery has closed its waiting list, but people are welcome to keep an eye on the website to see when bookings are open again. See

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