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‘A place for prayer, reflection’

Carmel Retreat changes owners, but stays spiritual

POSTED: October 15, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

A nature trail, recreation area and several gardens blanket Carmel Retreat Center's 28-acre property.

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Fred Hedges says he believes Carmel Retreat Center might be one of Jackson County’s best kept secrets.

Nestled on 28 acres off Old Collins Road in Hoschton, the Christian retreat center first opened its doors almost 20 years ago under Hedges and his wife, Virginia. The couple bought 270 acres in 1970 from a Braselton family and, in 1988, built a home on the property that served as a small retreat center for four years.

The demand for events soon grew to be too much for the home, however, and Virginia suggested the couple build a larger facility or stop holding retreats.

A nature trail, recreation area and several gardens blanket Carmel Retreat Center’s 28-acre property.

With that, Carmel Retreat Center was born. Fred said since the center opened in 1992, numerous groups have visited its calming refuge, some from as far away as Washington D.C., and New York. Various county commissioners, mayors and others have also found their way to the pastoral setting.

"They see the value of the retreat center as a place where people can come and really experience solitude," said Fred Hedges. "In this hectic world, we don’t take the time to get away."

Nearly two decades into its existence, Carmel now approaches another crossroads. The Hedges, both 86, recently decided to sell the three-story, 12,000-square-foot abode to Hoschton resident and businessman Gary Hardesty.

Hardesty owns Bar Code Depot in downtown Hoschton and attends St. Matthew Catholic Church in Winder with the Hedges.

Having attended several retreats at the facility, Hardesty said Carmel is more than just a business venture. "Carmel has really played a role in a lot of people’s lives, I know it has mine," he said. "It’s a place for prayer, reflection and (a place) to really try to get your life refocused."

Hardesty said he agreed to purchase Carmel to preserve its mission and help it grow. Carmel’s mission, to offer a peaceful place for prayer, reflection and relaxation, will remain the same, but Hardesty hopes to market it to more groups. Fred Hedges said he and Virginia never advertised and instead relied on word of mouth to bring in people.

Despite living in a society now driven by online marketing, the Hedges’ method still seems to have offered the center stability. Lori Dominey, Carmel’s new general manager, said the center is now 70 percent booked on weekends, but only 20 percent booked on weekdays. She hopes to increase both percentages.

"I hope (Carmel) continues to offer the community what it does now, I just hope that more people use it because we’re not completely full and I don’t think a lot of people know about it, she said.

"With that, it’s just a great place to come. I want (people) to come here and just get away, take some time to refresh and renew and just stop life for a little while and refocus."

While the Hedges are Catholic, Hardesty said the facility is open to anyone in the Christian community to hold events, including weddings, church meetings, family gatherings or pastoral spiritual retreats.

The facility can accommodate up to 49 people per night and can be split into two sections for two different groups. Both sides boast numerous bedrooms and bathrooms and a fully-equipped kitchen. One side is also furnished with a living room, conference room and dining room, while the other includes a small chapel, meeting room and counseling or reconciliation room.

Each room also has a personal touch, compliments of Virginia. Calming colors and designs grace the walls and furniture, and in every bedroom, a small cross hangs from the wall.

Outside, benches blanket the home’s sprawling meadows while a nature trail meanders nearby. A Stations of the Cross display skirts the forest’s edge, and several gardens dot the landscape.

When Dominey first saw the property, she immediately thought it resembled a mountain scene from North Carolina. The center’s interior exudes a rustic feel, too, and from the home’s entrance, a mountain almost seems to rise behind it.

Though Jackson Trail Road runs nearby, no traffic noise permeates the refuge. Instead, the silence is interrupted by the occasional bird chirping or wind rustling through the leaves.

In this natural setting, Virginia Hedges said some visitors feel even closer to God, telling her that Carmel is like their second "spiritual home."

Despite relinquishing ownership, Fred Hedges said he is excited with the plans Hardesty and Dominey have for Carmel. The Hedges plan to remain involved with the center, too.

Dominey laughed as she explained where she found Virginia last Tuesday, kneeling outside, pulling weeds from one of the gardens. Meanwhile, Fred Hedges was busy cutting down a tree elsewhere on the property.

Hardesty said having the Hedges remain involved is a blessing for both parties.

"To me, that’s important to them and it’s important to me," he said. "They’ll be there as long as they want to, when they’re 95, 105, whatever, they’ll be a part of Carmel."


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