I gave it my best shot…

Mary Gateshill initially took on the role of manager of the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City for 6 months. That was 8 years ago! As she now steps aside from this role, she reflects on her time managing this unique venue.

Mary had previous experience in managing teams and cooking. However that is not the same as managing a conference centre. The Centre has 4 conference rooms, 31 bedrooms, audio visual facilities and a very varied portfolio of visitors. “I gave it my best shot,” Mary recalls, “and I found I really enjoyed it. It stretched my abilities and it was wonderful to meet such a constantly changing variety of clients. Apart from Focolare groups they were from the local and county councils, the NHS, charity groups, interfaith groups, different Christian denominations, ecumenical events…  I found it very enriching. And so I stayed!” (…)

A Venue with a difference

Many organisations are in need of conference facilities, but each one has its own story. Mary reflected on one particular experience that gave the team great joy. “We were approached by the guardians of a religious order that focused very much on poverty and mission. They were keen to use the Centre for Unity for their annual retreat because of its ethos. I sent them details of our pricing structure and said if there was any difficulty with this to let me know. They replied that it was beyond their costings. We had a team meeting and agreed that we would run the weekend at a financial loss for ourselves, because we thought it was more important to support the good work they were doing.

We were asking very little indeed for a full board weekend so we were heartbroken when they replied that they would not be coming. Then we were approached by an organisation of young people who wanted to come to the Centre for a retreat and they would bring with them the people who would run it. And would you believe it?  The people running the retreat were the self-same religious who had wanted to come here for their own retreat and they came paid for by the organisation of these young people.  We were overjoyed because it meant that these religious were able to experience the Centre for Unity after all, and since then, the other members of that same order have come to support another group with other retreats”.

The daily challenges

The team at the Centre, the majority of whom work on a voluntary basis, are involved in all aspects of the running of the venue. “Working at the Centre for Unity can be very physical,” Mary recounts. “There are lots of practical activities to do. If you have a string of events one after the other, everybody in the team can get tired – and that can make people snappy. But fundamentally we’ve all agreed to work there and we know that the primary aim, as the name of the Centre suggests is to live for unity, not to be divided and snappy. Those things do happen of course, and so everyone has their way of apologising, starting again or just doing an act of love for somebody, to repair the damage. And that enables us then to have the strength and the light to take care of the people who are in the building”.

A welcome return

The lockdown presented many challenges to venues such as the Centre for Unity, although the Centre did open for use as a Covid testing centre and also acted as a collection point for donations for those in need in the local community. Mary remembers, however, how happy clients were to return to meeting at the Centre. “The building does play its part. We have many meetings of top doctors in the area. For the first meeting of this group after the lockdown, the lead doctor came ahead of his group to greet us and he was emotional. He said ‘It’s just so fantastic to be back here, to be back here in this building’.

“There are currently two lead trainers for health visitors”, she continued “and every time one of them comes she says ‘You know I just want to be here all the time, there’s something about this place’.” We get so many comments about the Centre for Unity when people visit – one retreat leader took two steps through the front door, stood still and said ‘This is the place. This is the right place for our retreat.’

The man who rang the doorbell

The doorbell rang one evening and a voice said on the speaker ‘I see this place is called Centre for Unity and I want to know what sort of unity you have here.’ Mary thought that was a rather unusual request on the doorstep, so she went with someone else to open the door, and found a young man who appeared to be possibly someone with an addiction problem. Taking up the story, Mary said “We let him in and talked a bit about unity and spent some time with him as he obviously needed some love and attention. Then he said he would like to come and help. We accepted, however I made it clear that we could not pay him, which he agreed to as he was volunteering, and he also absolutely agreed that he would not come into the building if he was inebriated.  So he came a number of times over a long period, helping us a lot with physical things as he was very strong. And we did things for him from time to time like washed his clothes or let him have a shower and whenever he left we gave him food.

Moving on but not away

So is this the end of an era for Mary? “I am leaving the post, but I will have the same connection with the Centre for Unity that everybody else from the Focolare has in this country, because the Centre is a focal point of the activity and the life of the Movement in Great Britain. I’ve really enjoyed my time at the Centre and it’s given me so many opportunities and different experiences I would never have had otherwise.”

The full interview with Mary can be found in New City magazine