Luxury Estate Becomes Home to Spiritual Retreat

By Madhava Smullen
A new luxury retreat in the suburbs just a few miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is offering ISKCON groups the use of its facilities for educational seminars, conferences, and training programs.

Krishna RetreatA new luxury retreat in the suburbs just a few miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is offering ISKCON groups the use of its facilities for educational seminars, conferences, and training programs.

To say these facilities are impressive is an understatement. Seva Retreat is set in the Elkins Estate, a 42-acre walled campus with sprawling lawns, its own gardens and greenhouses, two large ponds, a babbling stream running through the property, and two historic mansions.

The 64,000 square foot Elstowe Manor, a magnificent Italian Rennaissance-style palace, is the project’s commercial wing, hosting concerts, weddings, and fundraisers such as Arcadia University’s recent $25 million campaign. It includes a library, commercial kitchen, a 300-seat cafeteria, and a large ballroom with a 400-person capacity that can be used for yoga.

Meanwhile, the charming 31,000 square foot Chelten House, a turn-of-the-century Tudor mansion used as a women’s retreat for 75 years, is now the home of Seva Retreat. It includes yoga and dance studios, a store, and a commercial kitchen. Seva Retreat also offers a wide range of accommodation options from $50 per night rooms for students to high-end $250 per night suites; as well as private cottages for resident teachers, and ashram-style facilities for work-exchange students.

The twist? The Board members of non-profit Land Conservancy of Elkins Park, Inc. are ISKCON devotees and also sit on the board for Food For Life Philadelphia, a spiritually-motivated charity organization that has served the community for the past 25 years.

In fact, it was Food For Life director Devi Deva Dasa—now also the Land Conservancy’s Executive Director—who was driving by Elkins Estate one day in the spring of 2008, when he noticed that its wrought iron gates were wide open. This was unusual in itself, but it was the huge “AUCTION” sign that made him decide to stop.

Walking into Elstowe Manor, he discovered that developers were planning to turn the historic mansion into 253 town homes and that only two days remained to save the property. Ever the entrepreneur, Devi Deva went home, did some legal and financial research, and decided that Food For Life would sponsor the purchase of the property.

Re-opened in September 2009, the Estate will continue to serve as a spiritual retreat, just as it did for its original owner, entrepreneur and philanthropist William L. Elkins, and for the nuns of St. Catherine de Ricci.

“Our long term internal strategy is to see how we can use this for Srila Prabhupada and his mission,” says Devi Deva. “For now, we hope that ISKCON temples, especially those on the east coast, will make use of Seva Retreat to carry out the number one purpose of every ISKCON corporation—systematic spiritual education of humanity at large.”

He suggests that this goal include both introductory retreats for newcomers to Krishna consciousness, and educational workshops and seminars to help devotees advance and grow.

New York’s Bhakti Center has already used the facility twice for the weekend retreats that are the finale to its 10-week introductory course in Bhakti Yoga, drawing 35 to 40 college students each time for Bhagavad-gita study, yoga, japa and kirtan chanting, and sanga (spiritual association).

The Seva Retreat plans to support the continued development of the Bhakti “brand,” as well as other courses such as systematized study of the Bhagavad-gita and an introduction to the Vedas.

“We’re also holding kirtan concerts and classes, and would like to develop education around the lifestyle of Krishna consciousness, including nutrition, vegetarianism, and the environment,” says Devi Deva. “In the future, we hope to work with ISKCON’s second generation, holding several-week courses in music, theater, dance, and other arts.”

In line with its broad, open perspective, Seva Retreat also works extensively with groups other than ISKCON. “A Christian church group uses one of the chapels on the property on Sundays, and Buddhist groups have booked five workshops and retreats for August, September and October,” Devi Deva says. “Also, Philadelphia is home to the second largest Jewish community in North America, and so we’ve hosted a number of programs with Jewish groups.”

Seva Retreat has also worked with PETA, and with environmental groups promoting whole foods, nutrition, and the environmental benefits of vegetarianism. “We also plan on working with the baby-boomer generation, who are now approaching sixty,” says Devi Deva. “Most of them are fairly religious, but they’ve left the traditional religions they grew up with and are looking for spirituality as opposed to a social club. So we’re hoping to work with them on themes like reincarnation, the art of dying, and the purpose of life.”

With a few thousand people visiting the property every week, Devi Deva also plans to use it as a hub for organizing pilgrimages to India, hosting devotee guest speakers in the area, and more. Long-term plans include a full arts school, as well as other educational programs with certification and continuing education credits.

Seva Retreat is also open to ISKCON devotees coming up with their own ideas for retreats and educational projects. “This is a great place for forward-looking ISKCON groups or organizations to utilize,” Devi Deva says. “Srila Prabhupada once encouraged his disciples not to open any more temples, but to open restaurants instead, because they were neutral ground. And that netural ground is exactly what we’re trying to create here.”
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