Jesuits break ground on retreat center expansion

By Steve Wideman | For The Compass | July 12, 2013

Completion of Oshkosh retreat center project set for 2014

The project involves constructing a new, 60-room Manresa residential facility with private bathrooms and converting the adjacent LaStorta guest and residence center into a conference center and multimedia center with additional rooms for conference breakouts and individual spiritual direction.

Construction is slated for completion in late 2014.

A ‘jewel of Ignatian Spirituality’

A retreat center since 1961 and novitiate for nine years before that, the Oshkosh facility is seen as a jewel in ongoing plans to reorganize and restructure Jesuit provinces in a 12-state Upper Midwest region, said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Lawler, provincial of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held June 19 on a $5.4 million expansion and remodeling project at the Jesuit Retreat Center near Oshkosh.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held June 19 on a $5.4 million expansion and remodeling project at the Jesuit Retreat Center near Oshkosh.

“The Jesuit Retreat House will be one jewel of Ignatian spirituality among six retreat centers in this new province,” Fr. Lawler said in a letter publicly expressing provincial commitment to the project.

The groundbreaking comes less than two months after officials of the Detroit-based Capuchin Province of St. Joseph announced as of Dec. 31 they would no longer sponsor Monte Alverno Retreat Center in Appleton and St. Anthony Retreat Center in Marathon, putting those facilities in danger of closing if other sponsors are not found.

The potential closings would leave the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph with one retreat facility, the Capuchin Center in Washington, Mich., a 46-bed center located one hour north of Detroit.

‘Monte Alverno may stay open’

Capuchin Fr. Keith Clark, director at Monte Alverno, said representatives of two Catholic religious groups, whom he declined to name, have expressed interest in assuming sponsorship of Monte Alverno.

“I haven’t heard back from the two groups. All I can say right now is it’s possible Monte Alverno may stay open as a retreat center,” Fr. Clark said.

Province of St. Joseph Provincial Minister Fr. John Celichowski noted the decision not to sponsor the Capuchin retreat centers was made in 2010 following a lengthy study of provincial operations.

“We knew at that time we didn’t have the personnel or finances to operate all three retreat houses at the same time,” Fr. Celichowski said. “Unlike the Jesuits, we are not merging with other Capuchin provinces, so we don’t have the joint resources of several provinces with which to work.”

He said the recent decision by lay advisory board members to raise $1 million to support Monte Alverno does not affect the Capuchins’ decision to drop its sponsorship.
Fr. Celichowski said the only requirement for anyone interested in operating Monte Alverno or St. Anthony is to show long-term financial stability and viability.

Monte Alverno annually attracts about 3,000 retreatants while the Jesuit Retreat House, less than an hour’s drive south, attracts 2,000.

Jesuit Fr. John Schwantes, director of the Jesuit Retreat House, said he is saddened by the Capuchins’ decision to close Monte Alverno and St. Anthony.

“It’s a real loss for the diocese, the Capuchins and Franciscan spirituality,” said Fr. Schwantes. “Before I started this project I asked the Jesuit in charge of all our retreat houses ‘Should I be worried about doing this? Should I worry about spending more than $5 million on a building and we are not going to be here in 10 or 15 years?’ He said ‘No. You are in the black. You don’t have to worry.'”

Bishop Ricken supports expansion 

In a June 18 letter to Fr. Schwantes, who is overseeing the expansion and renovation work, Bishop David L. Ricken expressed his “joy and gratitude to the Lord” at breaking ground for the Jesuit Retreat House project.

Noting more than $3.2 million has been raised for the project, Bishop Ricken said the expansion and renovation will accommodate “activities of the retreat house now and into the future.”

Fr. Schwantes said the project increases accessibility with the addition of two elevators and 12 handicapped rooms, allows more flexibility to accommodate retreats in different formats and continues to offer a graceful simplicity “that fosters silence.”

“Some retreatants complain about the silence of a silent retreat, saying it makes them nervous, but they come back saying they miss the silence,” he said.

New era of retreat offerings
Fr. Schwantes said the facility on Lake Winnebago six miles south of Oshkosh is entering a new era of offering spiritual guidance to retreatants of younger age, differing cultures and ever-changing job and life situations.

“Sometimes we get caught up in trying to get people to adjust to our programs rather than adjust our programs to the people,” Fr. Schwantes said.

Younger retreatants want shorter retreats with less silence and more interaction, Fr. Schwantes said, noting there is also a growing demand for conference space.
Retreatants also want a change from the retreat center’s communal showers and bathrooms to private, in-room facilities.

The Jesuit Retreat House is targeted to host a new Jesuit outreach effort aimed at offering peer-led retreats, leadership training and formation activities to people in their 20s and 30s, said Jenene Francis, Wisconsin provincial assistant for pastoral ministry.

The outreach, part of Chicago-based Charis Ministries, is being planned in partnership with the Jesuit Retreat House and Diocese of Green Bay.

Inspired by Ignatian Spirituality
While both the Capuchins and Jesuits are experiencing decreases in friars and priests, Fr. Schwantes said the Jesuits have an active program to train lay men and women and women religious “to come and do our retreats.”

Jesuit retreats are based on the spiritual exercises of Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. The spiritual exercises are a series of meditations, prayers and mental exercises developed by St. Ignatius in 1522 while in Manresa, Spain. They form the basis of Ignatian spirituality, designed to help retreatants make life decisions based on discerning, or sensing God’s will for them.

“Ignatian spirituality is a road map to take people through the Spiritual Exercises, giving them the tools to help form decisions in their own lives by growing closer to God. We’ve trained a pool of people in Ignatian spirituality so that someone could come here, do my job as good as me and lead this ministry,” Fr. Schwantes said.

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