Bear of Saint Clare's
by Kelly Luker
Nobody knows where Bear lived before the Katrina disaster, but the home he found after that has been a blessing indeed. The big Akita-Husky mix now keeps company with the Franciscan missionary sisters who live at St. Clare’s Retreat in Soquel.
Sister Maureen Theresa, who has lived at the retreat center for 18 years, visited the Santa Cruz SPCA in February of 2006 with three other sisters to look at the “Katrina dogs,” as they were known. According to Santa Cruz SPCA director, Lisa Carter, their shelter took in well over 150 dogs rescued in the weeks and months following the hurricane and flood of August, 2005. Bear almost didn’t make it. Two flights of rescued animals had already arrived at the various Bay Area shelters, and there may not have been a third if Carter had not contacted the Doris Day Foundation for help. Fortunately for Bear, he made that third flight.
St. Clare’s beloved former dog, a German Shepherd named Rexa, had died the previous year. The nuns missed Rexa and having a dog around to share their lives with. They were ready for another companion and one that could also provide protection like Rexa had. “As we walked past the kennels, all the other dogs were jumping up and down,” explained Sister Maureen Theresa, “but Bear was just sitting there all ‘prim and proper.’” Based on the SPCA staff’s information at the time of adoption, the sister estimates Bear is now somewhere between 10 and 13 years old.
Sister Maria Gabriel, who arrived at the retreat in 2009, agreed with the other sisters who thought Bear might have had some police- or guard-dog training. A former veterinarian who entered the community (of nuns) in 2000, Sister Maria Gabriel noted that Bear exhibits very protective tendencies. “When the parking lot is full,” Sister Maria Gabriel said, “ Bear has to sniff each car.” He is friendly unless he perceives danger. For example, if someone reaches in their pocket and pulls out a cell phone, Bear will “get in their face,” Sister Maureen Theresa said. She recalled one time when a man walked onto the property unannounced. As he began to approach the door, Bear made it abundantly clear that he needed to stand very still. Bear also moves ahead of the sisters and checks out each room before allowing them to enter.
Few dogs have such a beautiful, perhaps “heavenly,” place to call home. St. Clare’s Retreat is located about 15 minutes south of Santa Cruz perched on a hilltop overlooking the Soquel Valley. With 50 acres of hiking trails to explore, both Bear and the sisters get their exercise. The property, originally known as Mountain View Ranch, was purchased in 1949. Like the St. Francis Retreat in Salinas for men, St. Clare’s was created for women as a place to refresh and renew their spiritual life.
Sister Maureen Theresa and I stroll around the grounds as a soft breeze rustles through the surrounding redwoods. She leads me past the landscaped gardens and dorms, then through the dining room and kitchen. We end up at the chapel, where a huge, stained-glass window filters in multi-hued sunlight. Asked if Bear is allowed in such a hallowed space, Sister Maureen laughs. “He joins us for afternoon prayer time in here every day.”
Like the sisters, Bear has his daily routine. Although they rise early, Bear sleeps in, preferring to join them later at breakfast. After exercise and naptime, Bear heads to the dining room when the sisters have lunch. After lunch, Bear keeps an eye on the property until he meets the sisters in the chapel at 5:20 PM, 10 minutes before prayers end and it’s time to go to dinner. Bear is welcome in the chapel, but he prefers to wait by the back door. He always recognizes the last hymn, and right on cue, comes around to the front door to greet everyone as they come out. “He keeps us on schedule,” Sister Marie Therese says.
Kelly Luker owns Little Pup Lodge (www.littlepuplodge.com), a cage-free boarding and daycare facility designed exclusively for small dogs. She has written for Runner's World, Salon.com and various alternative weeklies.