The Franciscan friars of Mount St. Francis in Cochrane, Alberta, are very ecologically minded. They act on this approach in many ways on their 500-acre property, which is bordered by woods on one side and the vast Canadian prairies, not far from the majestic Rocky Mountains, on the other. In his worldview and in his actions, Brother Daniel Gurnick is no exception.
Brother Dan talks a lot. Moves a lot. Laughs a lot. He seems almost hyperactive. He also walks quickly but casually. As if he always knew where he was going.
As someone with a very expressive face, he is always smiling. As if he knew something other people don’t. When you meet him, you can quickly sense his strength and great confidence in tomorrow.
Because he lives in an area that is ideal for outdoor activities, they are definitely part of his already full daily life. Walking, hiking in the woods and cycling make up his training routine. As if that weren’t enough, he adds snowboarding to his list of sports activities in winter.
He was ordained a priest in 2010, but his vocation did not surface very early in his life. Originally from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, he went to mass regularly with his family when he was a child, but he freely admits that it didn’t hold much interest for him. Nor did he enjoy his time at Catholic summer camp. Based on his mother’s recommendation – she was keeper of the faith in his family – he went to mass at camp anyway. She always gave him good advice. He likes to joke that his mom was for him a kind of “personal pope.” As a child, he took part in parish life by being an altar server sometimes, which he liked doing.
In his early 30s, a priest’s homily changed everything. “It deeply inspired me.” At that exact moment, he knew. “The next day, I told my mother that I had felt God’s call.” It was 2002. “I started by doing some studies with the Archdiocese of Edmonton. In the summer, I visited an orphanage in Peru with a friend. During that time, I learned more about the Franciscans: I met one of them and I went to a memorial mass for a Canadian Franciscan who had worked there for 36 years. After that experience, I felt that God was calling me to Franciscan life.” It was the vow of poverty and the commitment to life in community that first attracted him.
Brother Dan, who is very involved on the ecological front at Mount St. Francis, constantly feels called to protect Creation. Inspired by the bucolic setting in which he lives, including the famous Rocky Mountains that you can see from the retreat house on clear days, he marvels at the splendours of nature that surround him. “I think it’s important to respect Creation for the good of the generations to come.”
Although his life as a Franciscan is inspired by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, his interest in the ecological cause goes way back. “I had a great interest in ecology long before becoming a Franciscan.
As a teenager, I worked in the family garden, even though at the time I felt like a slave,” he jokes. “Then, one of my friends introduced me to hiking in the mountains. That is where I discovered all the glory of the wonders created by God. A little later, I worked in a Rocky Waste Authority recycling centre.”
He regularly contributes to reforestation by planting seedlings on the Franciscans’ land. Now that he no longer considers gardening to be forced labour, it is with joy and his usual enthusiasm that he gets busy when spring comes. Accompanied by volunteers, he enjoys sowing, weeding and watering the earth to harvest the products of the massive vegetable garden located not far from the retreat centre. The harvest is transformed by the cooks to feed the retreatants and the friars. Whatever is left over is routinely sent to charitable organizations in the area, such as Feed the Hungry in Calgary, to avoid wasting these precious vegetables.
A concern for responsible management of waste materials has motivated the friars to set up an unusual waste disposal system. They operate a machine designed to reduce the amount of waste generated through the “zero garbage” principle. It’s a technology called Egor (affectionately known as Brother Egor by the brothers of Mount St. Francis) where biodegradable waste and organic matter produced by the retreat centre and its garden are burned at a very high heat. The residue from this combustion will be turned into a potential biofuel.
A hard worker
His dedication to his fraternity seems to know no bounds. He helps out with daily life by doing various tasks, such as maintenance of the retreat centre and the fraternity. “I have never been afraid to get my hands dirty.” He takes great pride in manual labour, which he grew to love while working alongside his father when he was little. He finds a certain balance there, compared to what his life as a Franciscan friar brings him.
His duties at the Mount St. Francis retreat centre are wide-ranging. He generously offers his time in retreats through preaching or meeting with retreatants one on one. He spends a lot of time preparing his homilies. Although he takes seriously his role as presider at mass, you quickly figure out that he loves to joke around. His listeners appreciate him, laughing with him in the Mount St. Francis chapel. It must be said that Brother Dan is an excellent storyteller. He gesticulates a lot during his homilies, using not only words but his hands and arms as well.
For the love of God
Although at first glance he seems to always be moving, that’s not really the case. This ecologist at heart can also stop and take some time. Contemplation and meditation are at the core of his daily life. He dedicates at least 30 minutes of his day to different forms of prayer: the rosary, hymns, meditation on the scriptures, the prayer of the heart, and so on.
As the person responsible for pastoral ministry for vocations for Holy Spirit Province, he works with teens and young adults. During the school year, he regularly visits students at certain high schools in Cochrane and Calgary. He puts his talent and interest in music at the service of youth. Sometimes he writes songs in his spare time. He brings his guitar and sings with them. “I like to see them singing with passion the songs I have written. I like walking with teens on their faith journey.” These young people at times remind him of his own youth and lack of interest in the Church. He is in a good position to understand them: he tries to show them that religious practice is accessible to them and can easily be incorporated into their lifestyle. “God is not boring! I hope to be, with God’s grace, an instrument to help young people get to know God’s love and maybe fall in love with God, because having faith leads to a deep sense of well-being and great joy!”
He also ministers to a slightly older crowd in a few Alberta universities. “I like to talk to the young adults I meet. Their way of loving God inspires me. They deserve our support; they need our encouragement to flourish in faith.”
The life of Brother Dan seems marked by an underlying theme, a common thread: God’s love for us. In all aspects of his life, you can sense his love for God the Father. This love is found in the hope he offers to the younger generation, his sensitivity to the incredible beauty of nature, the protection he provides to the environment and the great trust he has in the future.