Peter Canisius House, 102 Mona Vale Road, Pymble, is located in the leafy grounds of Canisius College. Many of us who regularly drive past the college no doubt wonder at its history and its purpose. The grounds are always well-tended but there never seems to be much activity around the college. Nestled as it is, it seems to be some kind of retreat, but what kind of retreat is it?
Canisius College was built in 1938 on 37 acres of what was then picturesque farming land located less than a mile from Pymble railway station. Across the road is the Dalrymple Park, which slopes down towards Middle Harbour which flows into Sydney Harbour and affords views over the city below. Behind the property there was an orchard and a farm, so the College may well have been self-sustaining in the early days. It was built as a Theologate (a seminary or school of theology) for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus (i.e. the Jesuits). For many years, theologians studied at the College before their ordinations. The college closed as a Theologate in 1968, when the students and professors moved to Melbourne to the newly established Jesuit Theological College in Parkville. The college then became a Noviceship (for novices or novitiates). A Tertianship (the final formal period of formation in the Society of Jesus) was added, and then the Ignatian Centre of Spirituality was given a home there. While the religious formation of Jesuits now takes place elsewhere, there are still a number of retired Jesuits who live in Arrupe House, which is located in the grounds.
The college was named for Saint Peter Canisius, (1521 – 1597), an important Jesuit priest who supported the Catholic faith during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and Switzerland. Canisius became the first Dutchman to join the Society of Jesus in 1543. He was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1864 and later canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. His name is often used in educational institutions, because of his early work in the establishment of Jesuit education. There are, for instance, Canisius Colleges in Vienna, Austria, in Berlin, Germany, and in Buffalo, New York.
Prior to 2012, Peter Canisius House was known as Canisius College. A small number of older Jesuits still live on the property but a large number of empty guestrooms have been converted into visitor accommodation, generally for larger groups. Most guestrooms are ensuite and a small number share a bathroom. The vision of the college is to provide a space in which guests can deepen their relationship with God, as a facility for adult retreates, youth ministry, spiritual conversations, faith formation, staff professional development, as well as conferences, in service training and workshops. The website stipulates however that, “Essentially, any individual or group is able to stay at Peter Canisius House” although “individuals staying at our site would be expected to engage in a reflective process of some type…”