Tucson, Arizona  Sunday, 13 April 2003

Sanctuary Cove

Island of natural peace in an urban explosion


Photos by James S. Wood / Staff
Chuck Koesters keeps the entry tidy. Koesters, 42, and Annie Bunker, 46, are caretakers of the property. Says Bunker: "I have a really hard time looking out there now. The view has really changed.''


Photos by James S. Wood / Staff
The nondenominational stone church was built in 1962 with whatever board members could find - stones, old glass and concrete - and blends into the mountain backdrop.


The top of the All Creeds Chapel entry has a cross that shines with the morning sunlight. The Easter service is the only planned religious event held at Sanctuary Cove each year.


Koesters and his broom make a rustic scene, but the silence is sometimes broken by sounds from I-10 and nearby roads.

How to get there

* Plan on arriving about 5 a.m. for next Sunday's Sunrise Easter Service.

If you go

* To attend the April 20 Sunrise Easter Service at Sanctuary Cove, please arrive about 5 or 5:15 a.m. The service will begin at sunrise.
Sanctuary Cove is near the far south end of Scenic Drive near Saguaro National Monument West.
Take Silverbell Road to Scenic Drive, turn southwest and go past Pima Farms Road to Staggs Road. Turn right to Sanctuary Cove.
For more information, call the cove at 744-2375.
Donations can be mailed to All Creeds Inc./Sanctuary Cove, 8001 N. Scenic Drive, Marana, AZ 85743.

Easter service site deals with encroachment

By Stephanie Innes

MARANA - As the world around it has exploded with homes and streets for the past four decades, one Tucson-area landmark has remained - more or less - still.

But the mission of those who care for Sanctuary Cove, which will celebrate its 48th annual Sunrise Easter Service on April 20, has been gradually shifting from spiritual guardians to environmental stewards for an area feeling the sting of encroaching growth.

"I have a really hard time looking out there now. The view has really changed,'' said caretaker Annie Bunker, looking across at the view from the cove's stone amphitheater, where the Easter service will be held.

Bunker, 46, has been living as a caretaker at Sanctuary Cove in Marana since 1984. She now shares the small home on the property with Chuck Koesters, 42, and their 11-year-old son. The outdoor amphitheater, which has a rock altar, faces out to an area that was once an empty patch of desert but is now dotted with homes.

The silence of Sanctuary Cove, about 20 miles northwest of Downtown, is occasionally broken by the hum of Interstate 10 and nearby roads, which no longer have much vegetation to act as a buffer.

Bunker and Koesters are considering turning the amphitheater to face away from the new development. They also find themselves increasingly faced with wildlife seeking refuge on their property after being pushed out by encroaching development.

"We choose to respect the founder's wish, but at the same time we are trying to adapt to things he couldn't possibly have imagined," Koesters said. "We could deny all of that development exists. But then the cove wouldn't survive."

Taking care of the cove

In addition to caretaking for Sanctuary Cove, Bunker and Koesters run a Tucson performing arts group, Orts Theatre of Dance.

Though she grew up as an Episcopalian, Bunker now finds her religion in the cove's land nestled in the Tucson Mountains below Safford Peak - its wildflowers, cactus, brittle bush, fairy dusters, volcanic rock, wildlife and a stand of young saguaros she refers to as her "kids."

In recent years, she and Koesters have been providing an increasing amount of environmental education to Sanctuary Cove's visitors in an effort to protect the pristine spot that founder Elmer Staggs dubbed "a still place in a turning world," which some speculate was inspired by a passage from T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" section of the poem "Four Quartets":

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is … Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point …"

Many old-timers say Staggs' spirit is still at the top of Safford Peak - a spot where he occasionally climbed - looking over his beloved cove.

"We've come to a time of decision-making. We have a spiritual mission, but it's becoming preservation of the environment," Bunker said. "We don't want to make it cute. We want to keep it natural, and we want to preserve it for the future."

The cove, which sits alongside Saguaro National Monument West, did not always have caretakers. But during the 1970s when large groups of mostly younger people began having big parties at night and leaving behind their garbage, the volunteer board that oversees the 80-acre cove, All Creeds Inc., decided it was time someone lived on-site.

The caretakers tend the grounds and the chapel, and make sure no one is trespassing after dark or disturbing wildlife and plants.

A nondenominational stone church - All Creeds Chapel - was built in 1962 and is used as a space for groups to hold meetings, including prayers. The chapel was built using whatever board members, including
Staggs, could find - stones, old glass and concrete - and blends into the mountain backdrop.

The Easter service is the only planned religious event held at Sanctuary Cove each year. All Creeds Inc. once allowed weddings and other celebrations.

Weddings are no longer allowed. Nor are alcohol, picnicking, loud music or mountain biking, and Staggs' still place is opened only during daylight hours. Groups that want to use the chapel must make reservations.

The cove is mainly a place for meditation, hiking, flute-playing, romantic walks or any other contemplative activity that won't greatly disturb the vegetation, serenity or wildlife. Some of the regular users of the property include a gentleman who brings his goat for a walk there each week, and others who routinely hike nearby Safford Peak.

"We've kept the serenity in spite of the development around us,'' said retired schoolteacher Jennifer Rood, who has been attending the Sunrise Easter Services at the cove for 20 years and is a member of the All Creeds board.

"The land and the nature of the cove makes Easter there special. What a place to do it, when you don't have a ceiling over you," said Rood, who has lived in Tucson for 30 years. "We're not distracted by buildings."

Rood says it's a "fine line" that the property's caretakers walk in trying to ensure people are aware of Sanctuary Cove, yet also make sure they don't damage it.

"I think Sanctuary Cove will always be there. You can't just pick up the church and move it,'' said Phyllis Stender, an 86-year-old historian who began going to Easter services at the cove in 1961. "People are just going to have to work harder to keep it."

Spirituality found there

Stender knew Sanctuary Cove founder Staggs, a forest ranger, rancher and real estate dealer who homesteaded the then-remote area after World War I and eventually donated the property to All Creeds. He died in 1986 at the age of 92, according to Arizona Daily Star files. Staggs' "still place in a turning world" motto remains at the cove's entrance.

Staggs and a group of friends began the Easter services as an informal gathering on a patch of dirt at the cove in 1955, according to Koesters. The gathering became so popular they decided to preserve the spot and the tradition.

A 1969 brochure for All Creeds dedicates the land to all people who want to seek their "highest spiritual attainment'' and all who desire to "draw apart for meditation, prayer and personal worship." The group stated its mission as not concerned with anyone's religious affiliation, color or race.

"I love the cove. It has picked up a lot of good vibrations from spiritual-minded people,'' Stender said.

And while acting as environmental educators is becoming a new goal of All Creeds, which recently began giving nature tours to local school groups, the cove for many has always been about a relationship between faith and earth.

"I call it a natural spirituality. There are people who feel there is a spirituality in the earth itself," said Koesters, who grew up a devout Catholic and once considered a career in the priesthood, though he now says his spiritual needs are met by Sanctuary Cove.

"A lot of what people don't realize is, what they need to heal is right here."

"Oneness of humanity"

Koesters said much of what he does lately as a Sanctuary Cove caretaker, in addition to keeping up the chapel, amphitheater and parking area, is help people who have grown up in neighborhoods and homes, "with walls around them," to understand how to respect nature.

"It's a different mentality. They have grown up secluded and not part of the whole," he said.

Bunker and Koesters said that although the Easter ceremony is Christian in its tradition, the service is meant to be nondenominational, and people of all faiths are welcome. The idea of oneness and being part of a whole is central to the cove's message, and one that the caretakers say they are determined to preserve.

"Easter is about the Resurrection. Something is done and something else is beginning," Koesters said. "It's about the continuation of life."

Each year Sanctuary Cove's board members choose a different speaker for the Easter service, which in recent years has grown to more than 200 worshippers. This year the speaker is Kat Puraleski, a Phoenix-based minister and yoga instructor who says her teaching is inspired by her love and devotion to spirit, animals and nature.

"It's nondenominational, but we still emphasize Christ's message of love and unity and oneness of humanity," Koesters said. "There are people who say they live religion's oneness, yet they are fighting all the time. We are about getting along."