On a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon we gathered to consider how Monsignor Hawes' legacy could be continued through the wise use of The Hermitage. The basic inquiry was "How could this space best be used, in keeping with the spirit in which it was created?". We didn't come up with an 'answer', but there is strong interest in exploring different uses over the coming months and years. More details are below, and your suggestions and contributions are welcome.
The Hermitage is located in central Geraldton, and was designed, paid for by Monsignor John Hawes in 1936. Originally planned as the place in which he would retire and live out his days (before he decided to become a Hermit in the Bahamas instead), it has been the residence for the chaplain at the adjacent hospital, tourist attraction and is now owned by the National Trust and leased out to a private resident. It's probably better for Hawes himself to describe the place, as quoted in John Taylor's book on the Architecture of Haws entitled "Between Devotion and Design":
"This stands on a rise to the south-west of the hospital, and is a brick cottage with tiled roof, built a few years ago to the design of Monsignor Hawes and carried out by Mr Steve Harvey. The little building has proved an object of interest to many visitors to the hospital. The exterior bears a resemblance in form and colour to the old English cottage of Captain cook, transported and re-erected in Sydney [note: actually this is actually in Melbourne]. As will be seen from the illustration of the interior the living room has an open timbered roof and a gallery a tone end. A life-like carving of a dog, wrought out of the newel-post, guards the foot of the stairs, each of which is a solid log of wood. The gallery opens out onto an external balcony, from which a glorious view is obtained, with the sea on three sides, from the Back Beach, past Point Moore and its light-house to Champion Bay. The Cathedral stands out prominently above the surrounding roofs of the town, and far away across the sparkling blue water and further shore of the bay loom up the distant blue hills of around Northampton. The roof timbers of the cottage are very massive, the arched beams of the central truss being eighteen inches in thickness. All the timber is Karri, axe-hewn by sleeper hewers at Manjimup, and is untouched by saw or plane. at the end opposite the gallery is a great fire-place built of rough hewn stones brought from some demolished cottages, the earliest buildings in Geraldton. the doors are also from these, and the wood-block flooring is cut from the old rafters. Entering the quaint old-fashioned interior, with its unplastered warm brick walls and heavy green-stained timbering, the visitor might imagine that he had stepped out of the bush into the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs, along with "Snow White" and her attendant fawns and squirrels."
While it is now on one of Geraldton's busiest streets, close to the CBD, and with the ocean views a little more restricted, it's bushland setting and open views of the sky still give it a sense of being an isolated retreat for quiet contemplation or deep conversation. While the density of buildings and development around the building increases and some of its brickwork is crumbling, the appeal and cultural value of the place may actually increase. In a world of limited time, constant social and digital connection and secular, selfish consumerism, an experience of ascetic retreat and immersion in the life of a selfless servant of God and community may come to be valued more and more.
A small group representing religious, community, historical and artistic perspectives have become aware of the possibility for the space to be used for something other than a private residence. We all imagined what could happen if we were to open up the Hermitage without it being filled with modern artefacts such as the fridge, washer and WiFi router that greet any visitor walking through the open door. It was that opportunity that the group met to discuss, over lemon slice, jasmine tea and beetroot scones. The enthusiasm for a different use was shared, as was the concern for how the rent would be paid and whether the desired uses would be allowed by the owners (National Trust) or the relevant authorities (e.g. Local Government). Based on the understanding that the rent and risk could be borne by someone else and that the owners and authorities would be engaged with once there was some sort of a proposal, the group discussed possibilities that would honour the legacy.
The ideas included:
- Regular use by small groups, such as for meditation, prayer, book clubs, women's/men's groups etc.
- Regular tours and visits as part of the Monsignor Hawes Heritage Trail and linked to the tours of the Cathedral,
- Niche overnight accommodation for those wanting an immersive experience in the region's history and Monsignor Hawe's legacy,
- Occasional use by chaplains or counsellors from the neighbouring hospital and nursing home for important conversations with patients and/or relatives,
- Space for artist-in-residence (AIR) for weeks or months at a time, as part of an 'AIR' program already operating in the city,
- Small externally-catered or raw-food (there's no kitchen at the Hermitage) dinner parties, ceremonies, or afternoon teas,
- A quiet place for local artists, writers, creative professionals to do their work (while still having access to fast NBN internet connection),
- Use as a weekend or week-long retreat for meditation, contemplation, musical or artistic composition or other solitary endeavour.
In all cases these ideas could enable a lot of positive experiences as well as sources of revenue to contribute to the cost of rent ($7800/yr), yet also add a burden of management, expense, risk and hassle of vetting of uses/users. At the end of the afternoon tea, sitting in the shelter of this lovely building, it seemed that if we were inclined to act in alignment with the ethic, orientation and disposition of Hawes himself then the burdens would be considered very minor in contrast to the opportunity to serve others, community and spirit. So, in one form or another, it seems like the Hermitage may be hosting many more magical meetings and moments of quiet contemplation.
To learn more about Hawes or get involved in honouring hist legacy and continuing his good work, visit the Monsignor Hawes Heritage website.