Resort to become Scientology retreat

Exiled member stages protest at the gate

Orangeville Banner, Canada/March 9, 2011

The Church of Scientology is setting up base in Mono, at the former Hockley Highlands Inn & Conference Centre, with plans to establish a national retreat for members of the faith.

While Scientologists are excited about the idea - this will be the first retreat of its kind in Canada and one of only a handful around the world - at least one former member is raising a red flag.

Adam Holland, a 22-year-old Toronto man who was raised in the church, is concerned the rural landscape will make leaving a difficult task for anyone who chooses to abandon the controversial religion, as he did.

"It's pretty scary," Holland said. "It was pretty easy to escape when you're in the middle of downtown Toronto. You just get on a train and you go home.

"I'm glad that I escaped before they transferred their base over there."

Perhaps best-known for its celebrity members like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and, until recently, Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis, Scientology is not a recognized religion throughout the globe, often accused of cult-like practices and exploiting followers for financial gain - accusations church officials have denied.

In 2009, the international Scientology organization purchased the former Hockley Highlands resort and is renovating it to accommodate the national administrative office (currently in Toronto), a public hotel, auditorium for events and a retreat centre, known as Advanced Organization Saint Hill Canada.

"It's part of an expansion on an international level for certain areas of the world to now have national retreats," Angela Ilasi, community programs director for the church's national office, said, noting similar facilities are being developed in Africa and Mexico.

For the most part, she said the Mono retreat would cater to Scientologists from Canada and the eastern United States, though it will be available to others from around the world. It's expected to be up and running by the end of next year.

"The venue in Mono will be where more advanced pastoral counselling is done. So the people coming there, for the most part, will have already done a lot of the bridge and they're at the higher levels of the bridge," commented Rev. Pat Felske, explaining Scientologists refer to several levels of spiritual growth as a bridge. "It's a little bit more intense of study than somebody who's just, say, doing an introductory service, because they already have a good concept of their spiritual nature."

The facility, which consists of 196 acres of land and about 160,000 sq. ft. of building space, will have the capability to hold "several hundred" guests at a time, in addition to the more than 200 staff members needed to run it, Ilasi said.

She dismissed Holland's concern the facility is too far off the beaten track, explaining the tranquility of the area is what makes it an ideal spot for a religious retreat.

"It's off the crossroads of the hustle and bustle of big city," she said.

"When you're a Scientologist, you study and you receive auditing (pastoral counselling) and you come to your own realizations about your connections to the world around you and to God," Felske added. "That naturally involves needing to be in an environment where you have just the time and no stress levels, the calm environment where you can actually study without interruption, without having to worry about this, that or the other thing."

Holland, who received a Suppressive Person Declare last year - essentially meaning he's exiled from the church - remains concerned for anyone inside the Mono centre who wants to leave. On a cold, windy day last month, he took a bus to Orangeville and a cab from there to the entrance of the Third Line facility - a bright orange paper sign in-hand - to alert passersby of the Scientologists presence.

While church officials say leaving is as simple as walking out the door, Holland insists that's not the case.

Working at a Scientology centre in California in 2009, he said he grew disillusioned with the faith when wasn't allowed the leave the building and return to Canada after two months of requesting to do so. He claimed his sales of books by religion founder L. Ron Hubbard were too low.

"Finally, I had to escape. I took off for a week, tried to go see my dad (in Toronto)," he said.

Holland said he returned to the church a couple months later because he wanted to take a second look at the faith he was raised believing. When it became apparent he no longer trusted its teachings, last March he was exiled and also disowned by his parents as a result.

"Ever since then, it's just been a scramble to find work and pay my rent," he said. "I've been trying to reach my dad, but he won't answer emails and he won't talk to me."

Ilasi, who said she was at the California facility at the same time as Holland, insists anyone who wishes to leave the church is free to do so.

"The truth is that a person can go in and go out as they please," she said, stating members there didn't initially want Holland to leave because they were concerned for his safety and well-being.

"You're friends are always going to be concerned if you are OK. If there is an upset or something, you obviously want to make sure a person is doing alright and that something bad isn't going to happen to them."

While she remains concerned about Holland, Ilasi said his protest and other actions are causing upset and disturbance for members of the faith.

"What he was doing, and is doing, is attempting to prevent other people from being in Scientology, people that want to be in Scientology," she said.

"The community here has been so welcoming - Orangeville, Mono, Caledon. ... It's a wonderful community."

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