Esther Kennedy, Spirit Mountain Retreat director. Photo by Marshall Smith
Esther Kennedy, director of Idyllwild’s Spirit Mountain Retreat Center, is returning to Adrian, Mich., the motherhouse of her Dominican order of Catholic sisters. A new director, Jill Breslau, arrives in June.

“It’s been an extraordinary 11 years of my life and I have loved every minute of it,” Kennedy said. “I feel welcomed and loved by the community. Idyllwild has been a playground where I could pull it all together as best as I could.”

According to her board and the many community members who have attended programs at Spirit Mountain Retreat, her best has been remarkable. “Esther’s loving presence and openness to the oneness of us all is the heart and soul of Spirit Mountain Retreat,” board member Bronwyn Jones said. “She has touched our lives in so many ways and given us all a look at the power of the human spirit,” Vice President Carol McClintic said. “She continues to inspire all she has touched in her presence.” “She has been a tremendous spiritual leader and has made this center expand and grow immensely,” board President Trischa Clark said.

Kennedy has been an innovator at Spirit Mountain Retreat, developing programs, gardens, and outreach to the Idyllwild community. Her contributions to the spiritual life of the Idyllwild community are the outgrowth of 59 years in her religious community.

“I came to Idyllwild on a retreat in 2001, then returned as director in 2002. There was a sense of peace here.” One of the first things Kennedy did was to change the center’s name, from Colombiere to Spirit Mountain Retreat.

“We needed a name more reflective of this area. We had two main goals — to welcome more people from the community and create a greater sense of inclusiveness.” Kennedy noted that community response, especially among women, has been strong. “But we haven’t found a way to encourage men to participate in this. That’s an area we need to continue to explore. This is a critical time to create a place of safety, of generosity and to welcome each other into inner, personal and sacred growth. I believe this time is the last gasp of holding things as they were. It’s a time of transforming consciousness. It is certainly worth giving one’s life to.”

At age 17, in 1954, Kennedy decided to enter the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Mich. “It was not that unusual for young Irish Catholic girls on the south side of Chicago [to enter religious life],” Kennedy said, “There were not that many opportunities for women at that time. One could be a teacher, secretary or get married.”

Kennedy chose a life of service that included teaching in Chicago, development of programs at the campus in Adrian, and a sabbatical year of searching and experiential learning in India and Indonesia.

She said her desire to expand her understanding of Christianity’s place in the world and its relation to other faiths grew out of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII’s call for a religious community of inclusiveness, one of generosity of soul and spirit, and one with a regard for intellectual curiosity and an admonition not to be afraid to pursue new information.

Her immersion in the religious cultures of the Orient expanded her understanding of her own faith. “I learned what the East means by an experience of God, not the study, just the experience of the sacred that is in all of life.” Kennedy observed that Christianity had become very Westernized, very Roman, having veered away from its Semitic and Aramaic roots in the Middle Eat.

In India, at a temple part of Mother Theresa’s compound in Calcutta, Kennedy recalled a transformative experience. “When I entered I felt something I can only describe as the divine feminine,” she remembered. “I went to a corner and wept. There was a feminine presence so strong and powerful that it broke me open. It allowed me to see the divine in such an enormously large story [of faith] and how we see our Christianity in relation to Eastern religious traditions. The Christian story was larger than what I had previously experienced.”