P.E.I. expansion plans on hold, Buddhist nuns bid farewell to young students

Nuns at the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute in Brudenell, P.E.I., are hoping to work together with the local community to find a way forward, five months after their proposed expansion was rejected by Three Rivers council. But the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't made it easy.

Nuns seeking advice from local community on way to move forward

Venerable Joanna, Venerable Yvonne and Venerable Sabrina say they had to reassure some young students they were not to blame when Three Rivers council rejected the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute's Brudenell expansion plans. (Shane Ross/CBC)

One of the first things nuns at the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute tell their young female students when they arrive on Prince Edward Island is how friendly Islanders are. They'll smile at you, bring you food and pull your car out of the ditch, they'd say with first-hand experience.

So when the nuns' permit for a new dormitory in Brudenell was rejected by Three Rivers council last fall, the students thought it must be because of them.

Were they too loud, they asked?

"We kind of had to assure them," Venerable Yvonne said during an interview Wednesday. 

"At first they were a little worried. 'Are we not accepted here? Is it because of us?'

"No, no, no, no."

Nonetheless, 30 of the youngest students — all between the ages of 14 and 17 — had to say a tearful goodbye last month because the existing dormitory was too crowded for the few hundred existing nuns, who are spread out among Brudenell, Uigg and other areas.

I think the best lesson we learned from this rejection is we shouldn't come up with our own plan.— Venerable Yvonne

The students have left to return to their homes in Taiwan and the United States. 

The departure means the Brudenell monastery is much quieter these days, says Venerable Sabrina. She said the young students would often run around laughing, screaming and playing after class.

Nuns at the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as all Islanders have. (Shane Ross/CBC)

"They had so much fun throwing snow, they were very energized, and so we were all very fond of them, just because they were so boisterous," Sabrina said.

"Now that they're gone, the monastery has been very quiet, very peaceful, but at the same time the silence kind of has like a… we all miss them."

It's also quiet because there is no construction happening across the street from the monastery, where the two-storey dorm was to be built, all part of a 10-year, multimillion-dollar expansion that would have accommodated up to 1,400 Buddhist nuns and students.

Members voted against appeal

Three Rivers councillors denied the building permit, citing in part concerns that Buddhist families and lay people connected to the operation were purchasing homes in the area to use when they visited, which were otherwise left sitting empty.

Residents expressed concerns about the domino effect on home prices for future generations. Some skeptics have publicly questioned the nuns' intentions.

"In my heart, I don't want to think it's because of our religion or because we're not white," Yvonne said.

Though some friends of the community recommended they appeal the council's decision, the nuns voted against it.

"We want the community to say yes because they want this to happen. We don't want to force them to accept us here," Yvonne said. "And we think the responsibility is ours. We should be more transparent."

The nuns say they want to build trust within the Three Rivers community. (Shane Ross/CBC)

That's why the nuns have been seeking input from members of the community, though the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult.

As a religious organization, they have spoken with P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, about health measures. They have not been able to hold retreats or welcome visitors. Like many other Islanders, some members have not seen their families in several months.

They have, however, held a few online mindfulness workshops, and have more booked in the coming months.

For now, they are focused on getting advice about how to move forward with the expansion in a way that is a "win-win" for the nuns as well as the local community. Yvonne said it's important to build a trusting relationship, ask questions and try to learn from one another.

We want to make sure women have the same opportunity to learn like men, especially learning Buddhism.— Venerable Yvonne

"One of the grassroot suggestions we received is that we could plan information sessions and invite the Islanders to educate the whole Buddhist community including monks, nuns, parents, Buddhist laities, [about] the sensitivity of the land, the history of the land, so that we understand why that land is in every Islander's blood and flesh," Yvonne said.

"I think the best lesson we learned from this rejection is we shouldn't come up with our own plan. This plan of ours should be incorporated with the whole local community."

When and if that plan happens, they will be happy to welcome back the young, "boisterous" students.

"The reason we wanted to build that facility is because one of our most important missions is we want to make sure women have the same opportunity to learn like men, especially learning Buddhism," Yvonne said.

"We want to build a facility to provide a better environment for females."

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About the Author

Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.