Malibu's Best-Kept Secet
Serra Retreat offers a much needed break from hectic daily life with peaceful gardens, stunning ocean views and a spiritual retreat center.
Written by Molly Strawn | Photography by Julie Wuellner
Hidden among the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean lies one of the best-kept secrets in the city: the Serra Retreat. Run by Franciscan Friars since its founding 1942, this peaceful location offers a haven for anyone to escape the whirlwind of their daily lives. “The essence of Serra retreat is a place for people to come for a spiritual experience,” Friar Mel Jurisich, Serra Retreat director, said. “Serra is known for its sense of peace. There is a sense of peace here that you can’t find even if you just go down the hill.”
The land was initially part of Rancho Malibu, a property owned in the late 1800s by wealthy self-starters Fredrick and May Rindge. They owned 27 miles of the stunning coastline. After her husband’s death in the 1920s, she aimed to build her home, a 50-room castle, where Serra Retreat now sits. The building was never completed, and the property laid empty for several years while she waged a battle against the construction of Pacific Coast Highway. At the time, the Franciscans, Catholic priests and brothers who follow 12th-century saint St. Francis, were looking for a new seminary outside of the Santa Barbara mission with the aim of getting into retreat ministry. They purchased the property in 1942 and spent the next 20 years finishing the construction including laying original Malibu Tile. Serra became the first of eight Franciscan retreat houses on the West Coast. Years later, in 1970, a hillside fired swept into the property, burning down all but one original building. The building and the priceless Malibu tile inside was saved by sheriffs who were already on the property for a weekend retreat. After the fire, the one remaining building was converted to host all of the retreat’s needs so the retreat could continue and the property could remain open. This included being the kitchen, washroom and also sleeping quarters. All other buildings were later rebuilt.
Today, Serra is run by 20 staff members and 6 Friars. The location is rich in history and stunning views, making it truly unique among its surrounding community. Serra encourages people from all faiths and walks of life to find tranquility among its hills. “If you just stop and look, you are on solid rock,” Friar Mel said. “It’s not going anywhere, and you’re not going anywhere. You’re safe here.” The retreat house offers sponsored and hosted retreats including high school Kairos events, a Roman Catholic retreat programs for youths to reflect on the role of God in their lives. The spot hosts about 10 weekend group experiences per year and recovery meetings daily. During the week, they are open to the public and receive anywhere from 40 to 50 visitors every day. Serra Retreat holds a quality that keeps people coming back. Luther Wood has run a retreat held at Serra for the past 20 years and counting. “We treasure Serra, and treat it as our home away from home,” Wood said. “There’s a special place in my heart for Serra.” After his retreat group outgrew their location in Palos Verdes, his search for a new location to bring his participants a peaceful and beautiful spiritual experience landed him at Serra. Wood donates all profits from his retreat back into Serra, always wanting to support the organization in any way that he can. He respects the loving and inclusive environment Serra and Friar Mel provide for so many people. “[Friar Mel] represents his faith in a phenomenally human way,” Wood said. “He spreads good wherever he goes. You can feel that energy and light.” Doug Graham also holds the peace and quiet Serra embodies close to his heart. Graham has been facilitating two retreats per year at Serra since 1995 and has participated in retreats since 1989. “A retreat is to get away from society for a while,” Graham said. “It was something completely different than I experienced before. In that process, I became open and receptive to others.” Graham said that he tells all kinds of participants to go to Serra with an open mind and to let the location help you find peace. Each person gets something different out of a retreat, something unique that they need in their lives. His retreat participants come to Serra from all over the country. “What you come up the hill with, did you leave it there? What will you take down the hill with you?” Graham asked.
In line with the Franciscan tradition, Friar Mel believes in the care of creation and preserving the beautiful grounds to soothe many more souls to come. “We provide this environment. We are to take care of this Earth,” Friar Mel said. “Over 75 years, people have come and left their [emotional] junk on this hill and made the hill holy.” According to Friar Mel, Serra Retreat is needed now more than ever to give people the feeling of peace and safety. The Friars continue to evolve with the times and provide faith-based services to give people the fullest perspective of life. “Serra retreat is sacred ground. We think it is a sacred place for people to come and find a bit of peace in a very mixed up world that we are living in,” Friar Mel said. “Where do you go to center yourself when all of this is going on around you? Let creation bring your spirit up.” MM