School of the Heart

Christine Monier finds out where she belongs—helping others in need

Christmas trees, <a href=

ambulance more than 6, patient 000 feet of lights, decease live reindeer, an authentic nativity scene and professional ice carving demos are just a few of the attractions to be found at this year’s Coastal Black Christmas Festival. Photo by Amanda O’Brennan” src=”×903.jpg” width=”602″ height=”903″ /> Christmas trees, more than 6,000 feet of lights, live reindeer, an authentic nativity scene and professional ice carving demos are just a few of the attractions to be found at this year’s Coastal Black Christmas Festival. Photo by Amanda O’Brennan

Just a few years ago, the cattle were lowing on the Ludwig Dairy Farm in Black Creek, but their soft ‘moos’ and shuffling hooves have nothing to do with a nativity scene and baby Jesus. The cows needed to be milked three times a day, 356 days a year. They didn’t care if it was Christmas!

Fast-forward to 2014, and there is not a bovine in sight on the 650-acre parcel of land. Based on a family decision to try something new, the cows were all sold. Although the cow sheds still stand as a testament to the farmstead’s proud history, they have been re-purposed for other agricultural business uses. The once large dairy operation, milking more than 260 Holstein cattle, has undergone a generational shift that now encompasses several businesses working together. Within the four generations of the Ludwig and O’Brennan families operating the farm are Big D’s Bees Honey, Ludwig Lumber, Amanda O’Brennan Photography and Coastal Black Estate Winery.

There is a new excitement in the air, and it is the pitter-patter of reindeer hooves that breaks the silence of a starry night because Coastal Black recently acquired a game-farm licence and is now home to seven reindeer.

Dubbed ‘Sven and Ivan’, the two eldest of the small herd, will play the roles of Prancer and Dancer for the month of December when the farm opens its doors to families for the second annual Coastal Black Christmas Festival. This special family-friendly event will run every weekend from November 29 through December 23. Last year’s inaugural festival attracted more than 8,700 visitors. While it is, of course, weather dependant, this year there are more activities and attractions. Attendance is anticipated to be more than 12,000.

The Christmas Festival sees the Coastal Black family and staff shifting gears from the busy, adult-oriented summer season to welcome a wide range of multi-generational families, businesses, community groups and individuals to come together and celebrate the best of the season.

The second time around for the Coastal Black Christmas Festival sees an expansion in many areas. Visitors can expect to see some of the same attractions as the previous year such as live entertainment, photos with Santa and more than 6,000 feet of Christmas lights, but with some new and exciting elements. Long lasting memories will be made with unique attractions such as the live reindeer, the authentic nativity scene, professional ice carving demonstrations, and much more. The wine tasting room and a full concession will be open, and there will be lots of interactive and fun games that kids can do with their mittens on.

Coastal Black is also excited to be partnering with two local charities for their Christmas Festival this year. Habitat for Humanity (Vancouver Island North) has come on board for the ‘Celebration of Trees’. This fundraising activity will allow guests to browse through trees decorated by local businesses and to vote on their favorites. Habitat for Humanity is a charitable organization that works with partner families to build safe and affordable homes for families in need. Half of the proceeds from the Celebration of Trees will be donated directly to the Vancouver Island North division of Habitat for Humanity.

Coastal Black will also be working directly with Children’s Health Vancouver Island (CHVI) for the entire course of the festival. CHVI is a registered charity that raises funds to support the health of children and youth on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, with roots going back to 1922. Donations to this foundation are carefully allocated to facilities, programs, special projects, and urgently needed medical equipment that helps ensure children with health issues and disabilities receive the care they need to have every chance possible. The Coastal Black Christmas Festival will be donating one dollar from every admission fee to Children’s Health Vancouver Island.

Ice carving demonstrations are part of the fun at Coastal Black.  Photo by Amanda O'Brennan

Ice carving demonstrations are part of the fun at Coastal Black. Photo by Amanda O’Brennan

Aside from the seasonal celebrations, the Coastal Black Christmas Festival also gives people the opportunity to visit a productive farm to appreciate just how much it contributes to the local economy. It is a poignant reminder that the richness of life and the bountiful harvest we are so blessed to enjoy in the Comox Valley comes from the hard work and life-long dedication of farmers, in an economy where diversity can be the secret to success.

“Our family farm is made up of four generations living and working together to produce products of the highest standard, whether it be wine, fresh market fruit, raw honey, or custom milled lumber,” says Abel O’Brennan, the farm manager.

“It has been a fun transition, changing the farm’s focus. Having the generational span from a one-year-old to a 74-year-old truly creates a unique living and working environment. While it comes with its occasional challenges, the upside of having a diversity of opinion and insight far outweighs the challenge of an occasional disagreement. In all of our operations, we strive for organic practices and preservation of the land, air and waterways.”

With the help of a seasonal staff of about 35, as well as family members, the farmers cultivate 80 acres of blackberries, 20 acres each of raspberries and blueberries, 40 acres of corn and 15 acres of miscellaneous squash and pumpkins. While the majority of these crops are sold to Vancouver Island grocery stores, about 30 per cent is retained for use within the award-winning winery.

Since opening their doors in 2010, the winery has earned 27 national and international awards, including a Gold Medal and Best in Class at Savour Northwest, a wine competition for Alaska, BC, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Winemaker Abel O’Brennan has also garnered some attention, being named as both one of the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Top 40 Under 40, and one of Vancouver Island’s Top 20 Under 40.

Beekeeping is the perfect complement to the berry farm. All those berries need to be pollinated, and honey is a value-added ingredient used to make a fine selection of Coastal Black meads. While there are no award competitions for honey production, beekeeper Daniel Ludwig is still enjoying sweet success. He now tends to more than 600 hives (more than 60,000 bees per colony) and Big D’s Bees Honey is sold to stores across Vancouver Island and at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market.

In addition to being a productive farm, Coastal Black has also become a popular event venue and a tourist destination. One of the cow sheds was converted into a beautiful open barn-style event space that can accommodate groups of up to 350 for weddings and other special celebrations. There is also a wine tasting room and a Bistro that serves delicious and creative food made from scratch, using as much farm-grown and local food ingredients as possible. Their artisan pizzas and breads, made fresh daily and baked in an outdoor wood-fire brick oven, are worth making a trip to the farm. Sorry to tempt your taste buds though, but you will have to wait until spring to try them. Except for special events, the Bistro is closed for the season.

This past summer, the winery held successful events in support of local charities including YANA and Cameryn’s Cause for Kids Society. The winery also hosted a vintage movie night as a fundraiser for Tour De Rock. And the farm has just wrapped up the Coastal Black Pumpkin Festival, organized by beekeeper Daniel Ludwig and his wife Justine. This year more than 12,000 local and out of town guests came to the property during the month of October to enjoy the Pumpkin Fest activities.

“I think events like the Pumpkin and Christmas Festivals are important for our community,” says O’Brennan. “It gives people a chance to come out and build traditions in their local area, and have something fun to do with out-of-town guests. It is nice for people to learn what is produced locally, and support local businesses.”

The Coastal Black Christmas Festival runs from 2:00 to 8:00 pm, November 29- 30, December 5-7, 12-14 and 19-23. Admission is $6 per person, with children age five and under free. The admission includes a $1 donation to Children’s Health Vancouver Island and $3 ‘Festival Bucks’, which are redeemable anywhere within the festival.

To learn more visit or in person during business hours at 2186 Endall Road, Black Creek.

“What does it mean to be compassionate?  What does it mean to be loving and kind when you really feel otherwise?  L’Arche is experiential—it’s a school of the heart, <a href=

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” says L’Arche Comox Valley Executive Director Christine Monier at the organization’s Outreach Centre. Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “What does it mean to be compassionate? What does it mean to be loving and kind when you really feel otherwise? L’Arche is experiential—it’s a school of the heart, resuscitation
” says L’Arche Comox Valley Executive Director Christine Monier at the organization’s Outreach Centre. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Christine Monier lives in Comox but has a house in the west of France. She is married to a French man and has three adopted children of African descent, is fluent in three languages and travels internationally with her work. So you might expect Monier to wear a Chanel suit with a chic scarf twisted elegantly around her neck—it all sounds very cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But when you meet Monier, the lens shifts. She has a down-to-earth warmth and ease of manner that makes her easy to talk to. There is no Chanel suit, though she is wearing a very nice scarf.

Monier moved to the Valley with her family five years ago to take on the role of Executive Director of L’Arche Comox Valley, a not-for-profit that is part of L’Arche International. L’Arche is renowned for the way it builds communities that include adults with, and without, developmental disabilities and Monier is passionate about her role within L’Arche.

“I’m excited about what’s happening in our community,” says Monier with reference to the I Belong! campaign that L’Arche Comox Valley launched a year ago. The campaign goal is the construction of a facility that would house L’Arche’s Outreach Centre and offices, but also five modest apartment units that could house adults with disabilities that can live independently.

“I’ve learned so much by spearheading this capital campaign to build a new facility for people with developmental disabilities. It’s just been amazing to work with the community and to raise awareness and funds for this project. It’s been challenging at times because it’s brought me out into a whole other sphere of life in the Comox Valley, but we’re reaching out in new ways to new people with the L’Arche vision, the L’Arche story.”

Monier first got involved with L’Arche when she was a young student at the University of Toronto. “It’s been 25 years—or it might be more,” she admits with a laugh. “I was in international relations, political science at U of T and I wanted to become bilingual. I was already taking French and I was looking for a summer job. I wanted to have a real nice accent, so where do you go? You go to France! I got a job working as a chambermaid in Nice, booked my ticket, and then my mother met somebody who knew about L’Arche.”

Monier glances out the window of her tiny office in L’Arche’s current home on England Avenue. A large stained glass piece is propped on the sill and sunlight streams through, painting her desk with color.

“I was looking to do something with meaning. I think that’s the bottom line—although I wanted to learn French, I wanted to be useful to something or somebody,” she says. “So I phoned the hotel in Nice to say I wasn’t coming and I spent the summer at L’Arche in Trosly.”

Monier smiles at the memory of younger, more impetuous self. “I was really touched by people with developmental disabilities, I really felt welcomed by them but it was pretty hard. I didn’t speak French really well and working with people with developmental disabilities maybe wasn’t the best place to learn,” she admits wryly.

“I was doing cleaning, menial tasks and I had this calendar and I would mark off—one day less. I didn’t know what I was doing, then but by the end of the summer something had changed in me. The way I looked at people, the way I looked at the world.”

“So I went back to university. I was still thinking about doing law or foreign service, but having spent those four months in L’Arche everything I did the last two years of university just took on a different flavor. I didn’t feel like I wanted a career with money or to become somebody important; that didn’t seem as important as being in a place where I was contributing.”

While she tried to find out the meaning of her life, she ignored pressure from her family and other students that she should continue on to graduate work. “I really felt I needed to carve out this space where I could reflect and I wanted to go away,” she recalls. “It was just so obvious that L’Arche in France always needed assistants, someone who could come for a year.”

So she headed to France again. “And in that year, that was really choosing L’Arche,” she says. “I was in a home with very high needs people, lots of nonverbal people, people with complex needs—just people suffering. And what was the purpose of it—the suffering?”

“For me it was a real spiritual journey. I was raised Catholic, but religion was obligation. I jumped through the hoops but it wasn’t personal. That year it became my choice. For me it was about being with people with huge suffering and in many ways not being able to change that. You’re not going to make people better. You aren’t going to offer a solution to their problem, but you’re going to be there with them in it.”

She has fond memories of the people who touched her life along the way. “There was this man Alain—he would take you in his arms and hug you and you just felt so loved. I remember another little man, Gerard. Very disfigured— I had a hard time just to look at him; I had to turn my head away sometimes because he would be drooling. And I remember assistants saying, ‘Oh Gerard is so sweet,’ and thinking, ‘What are they saying?’ Monier shakes her head. “I’m supposed to be this Christian person who says I want to love people and yet I turn my head?”

Sunlight continues to move across Monier’s orderly desk, giving a transcendental quality to the few personal items—a small watercolor painting, a beach rock lovingly collected, a rough ceramic cross.

“L’Arche is a place where you can reflect on that. I would have a day away and I didn’t have many friends so I would try to go to Paris and walk the streets, go to museums. And you spend a lot of time alone in your head, reflecting. In university there were always deadlines, classes and you were always projecting what you should be like. With people with disabilities, you just are, you just be. When you’re with Alain, you’re not going to have a stimulating conversation, there’s no one-upmanship, you play no games. You’re just authentic. I was living this simple life and it felt very, very significant.”

The international element to the job appealed to Monier. “There were assistants from Syria, from Germany, from England, from Japan and you would have these very interesting conversations because you’re sharing these moments. What does it mean to be compassionate? What does it mean to be loving and kind when you really feel otherwise? L’Arche is experiential—it’s a school of the heart. “

“There was another man, Denis, who would throw himself out of his wheelchair and bang his head on a concrete wall. His nose had been broken so many times; he had a boxer’s face. And people just fell in love with him. He had a sense of humor, but you didn’t see that at first. You have to have a relationship. You see the beauty because of the relationship. It’s the spirit of the person that you’ve uncovered. And then you touch your own limitations.

“You then are on a journey of reconciling who you are and realizing we’re all broken people. Denis doesn’t have it all together—he needs people to support him. I don’t have it all together. Really, to be a loving, compassionate person, I need someone like Denis who calls that out of me. What does it mean to be fully human? That’s what L’Arche teaches you.”

After a year in France, Monier was not ready to leave, so she made a commitment for another year. “I became the House Leader and that’s when Hervé came,” she says.

Hervé was a young French nursing student. “Initially there was no ‘click’ but after six months, you share a lot and I realized that I had been slowly falling in love with him. He was disenchanted with his studies, looking for meaning, wanting to find himself. Coming out of nursing he was feeling like it was all about charts and not spending time with people; that it was not about the care but about being competent and efficient.”

Monier married Hervé two years later after an extended courtship. “Hervé wanted to get married earlier but I thought it was a good thing to wait. It’s the most important decision you’re ever going to make in your life, who you’re going to spend you life with. I told him ‘I want to meet your family, you meet mine.”

After they married, the couple decided to move to Canada. “I knew what it was like to live in France and I wanted Hervé to have the experience of living in Canada. We applied to L’Arche Canada and were accepted at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.”

L’Arche was very much a shared passion, but now they had something else to think about—starting a family.

“Initially we didn’t want to have kids, but after awhile we decided we did. But after a few miscarriages, we realized that it wasn’t going to work. So then there were three questions we were trying to answer: Do we want to live in France or Canada? Hervé hated the winter in Toronto. Do we want to stay with L’Arche? And what will we do about having children?”

After a great deal of soul searching, the Moniers decided to return to France, to continue working with L’Arche and to pursue adoption.

“We wrote a standard letter to 60 agencies in France and we got a positive letter back from one of them. We adopted Mariam in October 1994—she was born in Paris but her mother is from Congo. And then this agency would always give you a second child because they believe that for an adoption to be successful you need to have a sibling for the first child. We adopted Agathe two years later.”

A final child, an 11-month-old boy named Timothee from Djibouti was adopted two years later.

In retrospect, the decision to move to Canada five years ago has seemed a good choice, especially for their children.

“When I look today at what is happening in France,” Monier says, referring in particular to the recent bombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, “I feel that it’s a more racist society—such poor integration. I don’t think we experienced any racism with our children because mostly people just admired us. They were identified as our children, but on their own…” Monier shakes her head.

“We lived in that village and we brought up the kids for 16, 17 years. It was a lovely village, we loved living there, but for the last two or three years we were feeling the routine. And when you’re a couple like we are, you’re always torn. For retirement, will we go back and live in France?” Monier asks. “The ideal would be six months here, six months there. In France you have museums and culture and beautiful buildings. Here it’s the nature, the space, the open mentality.”

The sunlight has finished its track across the desk but the south-facing office is still bright with indirect light. Perhaps not a bad metaphor for Monier herself who has found a way of connecting her heart with her life’s work and creating a family that extends well beyond the traditional boundaries of culture, race and ability. The school of the heart can claim another successful graduate.

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