Our History

Co-founders, Sharon Smith and Caroline Penhale share their start-up story.

Where did the idea for Sanctuary come from?

Caroline: Well, I was working at the Canadian Mental Health Association on a Community Mental Health Team and I noticed that my clients had a big interest in spirituality. I would receive referrals from other clinicians because I was becoming known as the mental health professional who was willing to talk about spirituality. For so many individuals, myself included, prayer is what gets us through the hard, dark days. And there is a disconnect between mental health services and spiritual communities.

Sharon and I were introduced by a manager at from Community Mental Health Services who said “You two need to meet!”

Sharon: For me it started while working alongside my late husband Alex in a church plant in Johannesburg. Along with being a ‘pastor’, I was working at the local mental health hospital and some of the people that I called patients/clients started coming to the church. It was a time when I really began to wonder what could the church offer - you see, I knew what rehabilitation professionals would do in empowering the process of recovery, but I longed for a way that the church could really make a difference in people's lives, no matter what their journey.

When Caroline and I met and compared notes we realized that churches had been places of hurt instead of places of care and healing... We knew something needed to be done.

How did you know the time was right to start Sanctuary?

Sharon: I had been doing some leadership training around mental health and mental illness at my own church, Tenth Ave. Alliance and then, because of this, at other churches in the area. There was one key moment for me... It happened at St. Ignatius Parish on UBC campus (now part of St Marks).

I was invited to give a series of 3 seminars on the church’s role in someone’s recovery process. After seminar 3, I had this deep sense that seminars were not enough and that some structure needed to be in place to empower, guide and focus church communities on a strategy for action. This kind of work would demand energy, partnerships with people who had complimentary skills to mine and could no longer be part time. Caroline’s mental health training/experience, crisis-line training, coaching experience and energy was a perfect fit as a partner to get this work off the ground.

What were your first thoughts when Sharon approached you with the idea?

Caroline: Well, I can’t really remember my first thoughts. I know I was intrigued and that I had talked with others about doing something similar in the past…but I couldn’t decide right away. I mean start a brand new ministry? It sounded a bit daunting. But our conversation took place late in the year, and we agreed to discern over Christmas…

What have been one or two of your favourite highlights so far?

Sharon: Our first board meeting - Caroline and I had been steeped in the work for 8 months and could no longer see the wood for the trees. At this meeting, we were met with such affirmation, wonder and encouragement that I knew that Sanctuary had become something bigger than the two of us.

The other would be not a single moment but a re-occurring one - it is the sense I get during the discussion time at a workshop, the We are Not Alone Forum, a church seminar that the Cat is now out of the Bag, the Spirit has opened up a safe space for vulnerable sharing, it is a sense of relief. And it is like a Kingdom moment - where what is fragile becomes visible, beautiful and reveals something of the mystery of God.

Caroline: Receiving our first grant from the United Church was like God saying Yes!  I loved co-leading the workshops around the city. Coaching the 2 pilot church action groups was a challenge but a good one And perhaps the best of all was making a presentation about Sanctuary at the annual meeting of the United Church’s BC Conference, it brought my two worlds together.


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