Cherished guest house to be renovated

An illustration of a brick building.
A sketch of the proposed new Guest House entrance by Sister Elizabeth Ann, SSJD.
 on March 30, 2023

Thousands have enjoyed quiet place over the years

The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine is embarking on an ambitious project to renovate its Guest House, a popular spot in Toronto among Anglicans and the wider community for retreats, rest and renewal.

The campaign has been dubbed “A Home for the Heart,” a name that Archbishop Fred Hiltz says reflects the impact the Guest House has had on countless people over the years. Archbishop Hiltz, former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, is the co-chair of the capital campaign committee, alongside the Rev. Canon Sister Constance Joanna Gefvert.

“There’s just so much evidence over the years that that’s how people who’ve been guests feel about the Guest House – that it’s a home, it’s comfortable,” he says. “It’s also a home for the heart, whether that’s a joyful heart, or whether it’s a sorrowful heart or a heart that’s just worn out, a heart that’s worried, a heart that’s resting with God.”

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, co-chair of the capital campaign committee. Photo by Michael Hudson.

The Sisters’ hospitality offered at St. John’s Convent is deeply rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict, who wrote in the 6th century that guests are to be welcomed as Christ and treated “with all the courtesy of love.”

That commitment to monastic hospitality has long been part of the Sisters’ ministry in Canada, says Archbishop Hiltz. “Even when they had houses in Victoria, Edmonton and Montreal, they certainly had provision for monastic hospitality,” he says. “They are really committed to embodying that kind of ‘sacred space’ where people can come and be free of their multiple commitments, they can come and be quiet, they can come to pray.”

Before the pandemic, the Sisters welcomed more than 2,500 guests every year from across Canada and the Anglican Communion. The Guest House’s rooms are often filled with people on individual retreats, group retreats and facilitated workshops, as well as members of parish, diocesan and national committees. The space is also open to family members of long-term patients at nearby St. John’s Rehab, hospital staff staying overnight during storms, refugee families and others who need temporary accommodation.

“While it’s solidly Anglican, it’s got a really good reputation for being a venue for people of other denominations,” says Archbishop Hiltz. “It’s being used by lots and lots of people, not just Anglicans – other denominations, people of other faith traditions, some people of no faith tradition who just need to get away to a place of quiet where they can renew themselves in their own particular way.”

After hosting thousands of guests, the Guest House’s age is starting to show. Built in 1956, it was only partially updated when the new convent was constructed in 2004. The upcoming renovations include replacing the roof and windows; installing new, more environmentally friendly heating and cooling systems; updating and in some cases reconstructing bedrooms, bathrooms and meeting rooms; and creating an accessible entrance.

“It’s to help the Sisters to be able to offer as safe, secure and comfortable a home as they can for their guests,” says Archbishop Hiltz. “They want to be able to provide that ministry in a building that is appropriately upgraded and as comfortable as possible, while honouring monastic hospitality.”

A group meets in St. Margaret’s Chapel in the Guest House.

Having decided on the most pressing demands, the Sisters are now focused on raising the money needed to fund the work. The capital campaign includes $4 million in construction and consulting costs, of which $1.3 million had been raised as of Jan. 1, including $1 million from the Sisterhood’s own Founders Fund.

The public campaign officially launched on Feb. 9 with a day of prayer on the feast of Mother Hannah Grier Coome, the founder and first Mother Superior of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. The mid-day Eucharist included a call to prayer by Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas, the Reverend Mother, who gave thanks for the courage of Mother Hannah in starting a religious order in Canada. “It was part of her vision that we should welcome guests into our home, with all the courtesy of love, to enjoy a space apart for rest, prayer and refreshment. This we have done for over 138 years,” she said.

The campaign is currently in what Archbishop Hiltz calls a “quiet phase” of targeted requests for gifts. “We’re working with M & M Consultants and we’re moving into a period of inviting a number of people, dioceses and other religious communities with whom the Sisters have close relationships to consider a major gift in support of the campaign,” he says.

By late May or early June, the committee plans to begin a much broader appeal to individuals who would like to make a gift. “Some people, out of a great love for the Sisters and a great desire to support their ministry of hospitality, are already saying ‘well, I’d like to make my gift now’ and some of them are,” he says.

He says he’s thankful that people are so committed in their support of the Sisters and their ministry, and that he too feels a strong personal connection with the campaign. After first experiencing the Sisters’ hospitality at their house in Montreal when he was the bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, he has been a frequent guest at St. John’s Convent over the years, particularly during his time as Primate.

“Personally speaking, the Guest House has been a real blessing for me, and I know I’m only one of hundreds and hundreds of people across the Church that have benefitted,” he says. “This Guest House deserves all the attention that we need to give it so it can continue to be a vibrant centre for this kind of monastic hospitality. The doors are open, and a warm welcome awaits everybody who comes knocking.”

To learn more about the Guest House and the campaign, visit


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