Former convent retreat bought by three friends; all are welcome into their home

By SARAH LIDEEN, Staff Writer, [email protected]

“We did not look for it, it found us,” said Marla Waseka, owner of The Olive Branch Retreat in Grey Eagle.

Three friends came together to build a home for themselves and others to enjoy. Formerly a convent for nuns in the Diocese of St. Cloud, the women were able to transform the home into a getaway spot. Pictured are (from left): Marla Waseka, Jessica Town-Gunderson and Sheila Burski.

Once occupied by nuns as a means to retreat during the year, eventually the upkeep and maintenance became too much and they decided to sell.

Sheila Burski, owner of The Olive Branch Retreat, was instantly attracted to the vision of owning such a property. With barely any windows or view of the lake, she enlisted the help of Waseka who had previous architectural experience.

“I love being a part of something bigger than myself, which this is,” said Waseka.

Beginning their project together in May 2008, they were finally ready to open for business by October that year. Before opening the doors, the two friends felt that something was missing and that was when they asked their third owner, Jessica Town-Gunderson who knew Waseka from a previous business adventure, to become a part of the journey.

“It’s a labor of love. It takes a lot of heart,” said Town-Gunderson.

The three friends re-modeled the home, opening up the once closed off courtyard and tearing down walls that blocked views and open spaces within the home. The rooms are now painted bright colors and are decorated with a taste of the past that had once lived inside its walls.

“I think because of the history the house has a feeling to it,” said Waseka.

Rita, 75 years old and the youngest nun that had once lived at the house, then called Portiuncula, meaning Little Portion, is still honored. A cozy, quiet room in the back of the home is named after her as she played a large role in the women purchasing the house.

Next to it lies a room with a closet filled with wedding gowns. As nuns take their vows in white gowns, Burski, collector of wedding gowns, felt that they would fit right in.

“It was the perfect place to store them – how fitting!” said Town-Gunderson.

Perhaps one of the most special places on the property is the memory garden.

“We have plants out there in memory of loved ones,” said Town-Gunderson, adding that this private place too, is open to all that come to their home.

It is immediately obvious that the women enjoy having their home open to others as they page through a guest book filled with comments, they laugh at memories, smile at touching notes left by guests, and enjoy hearing the stories of those that came for peace and healing.

“We love families coming in and sharing this place with them,” said Waseka.

Although at one point in time, Waseka and Town-Gunderson never wanted to own a second home, they quickly discovered that being able to share their home with others is the best gift of all.

“We tend to it spiritually. The good vibes that are here we want to maintain that for everyone,” said Waseka. “It also helps we’re women and we know what it takes to create a home.”

Town-Gunderson said that in her personal experience the home has offered a place of healing and comfort for those that need it most, while Waseka said taking a cup of coffee in the morning to the Chapel and reading a book is the most relaxing.

“It’s a business, but we have the opportunity to utilize it,” said Waseka.

The three women hope for the future that they are able to open their home to even more people. They also hope to host more healing retreats to bring people closer together.

The name of their home, The Olive Branch Retreat,  thought of by Burski, says it all, meaning peace and hope. The three women are  dedicated to making sure the home stays the way it is and is always there when someone needs it.

“When you’re here it grabs you,” said Town-Gunderson. “It gives you a hug.”

The Olive Branch Retreat is located in Grey Eagle, right on Fuller Lake. the entire facility is rented, not just rooms. During peak resort season, June-August, rates are $425 per night, $3,025 for an entire week or $1,745 for Friday-Sunday. From September-May it is $395 per night, $2,495 for an entire week and $1,495 for Friday-Sunday. All their rates and directions for making reservations are also on their Web site,

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