Chambers Island residents saddened by news of retreat house closing

By Monica Sawyn | For The Compass | January 23, 2014

STURGEON BAY — Not everyone who remembers Holy Name Retreat House does so because they made a retreat. Some remember it as the very good neighbor who shared their tiny Chambers Island for so many years, and all are saddened by the news that the Green Bay Diocese has closed the facility.

Judy Baudhuin, whose father-in-law was instrumental in acquiring the Chambers Island property for the diocese, looks at old pictures from the early years of Holy Name Retreat House. (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)
Judy Baudhuin, whose father-in-law was instrumental in acquiring the Chambers Island property for the diocese, looks at old pictures from the early years of Holy Name Retreat House. (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)

“It had a tempering effect on the whole island,” said Donna Thenell. “The islanders knew there were silent retreats going on, and they respected that.”

MaryAnn Blahnik of Fish Creek, whose husband Joel captained the Quo Vadis between the island and the mainland for 30 years, said the retreat house was an anchor for the island, and agreed about its good influence.

“It made us be our better selves,” she said.

The retreat house was also an excellent neighbor, according to Thenell.

“We knew we could always go there to borrow something — some food item we had run out of, or a piece of equipment,” she said. In an island community, where the nearest stores are seven miles away on the mainland, neighborliness is a necessary way of life.

Thenell and her husband John, of Sturgeon Bay, have had a summer home on the island for over 50 years. Her father, George “Butch” Baudhuin and his brothers, also island property owners, bought and donated the property, owned by the Drake family of Chicago, that was converted into the retreat house back in the 1950s.

Two events led to that contribution. First, Baudhuin took a couple missionary priests on a boat ride that ended at his cottage on Chambers Island. One of the priests, enthralled with the island, remarked that it would make a wonderful setting for a retreat house.

It wasn’t until Baudhuin made a retreat of his own at Monte Alverno Retreat Center in Appleton in the early 1950s, and learned that the center couldn’t accommodate all retreat requests in a timely manner, that he recalled the earlier remark by the visiting priests. With his brothers Ralph, John, Francis and Paul, he bought the Drake property for the diocese to establish its own retreat center.

“My girlfriends and I camped out in that building the week before it was turned over to the diocese,” Thenell remembered.

Judy Baudhuin, daughter-in-law of George Baudhuin, spent every weekend on the island with her late husband Don and their two children — and those weekends often included the sisters or the priests from Holy Name.

“When the retreatants were gone, or during their free time, they knew they could pop over to our place and often did,” Baudhuin said.

Thenell, too, said there was a standing invitation to the Bay Settlement sisters who staffed the retreat house at the time “to come sit on our swing and enjoy the view.”

“Eventually, there was a worn path in the grass, because they came often,” Thenell said.

Baudhuin remembers the weekend Masses just for the islanders, held in a room off the kitchen so as not to interfere with the retreatants who used the chapel.

“There were probably about 10 families on the island, many who were Catholic, but some weren’t. They came, too, because it was their only option for a Sunday service,” Baudhuin said.

After Mass, Sr. Mary Alice always invited the children into the kitchen for her homemade cookies, a treat they learned to look forward to.

“Those weekend Masses were a focus for island sociability,” Thenell said.

Blahnik and her husband were caretakers for the island lighthouse since the mid-’70s, and lived in its residence with their children during the summer.

“We became friends with the staff, who often came over to the lighthouse in the evenings to attend the little plays our kids put on,” she said.

In return, when the retreat house began falling on difficult financial times, the islanders rallied to host fundraisers, such as the fancy dinner where the islanders served as taxi drivers and waiters for the guests.

The vicissitudes of island life required another kind of cooperation just recently. At a fundraiser for Holy Name, the Thenells won a dinner with Bishop David Ricken, who suggested it be held on the island. The Thenells offered to host it at their cottage.

The weather didn’t cooperate, however. The bishop couldn’t get to the island, and the dinner had to be cancelled. A lot of food had been bought and prepared for the event at the retreat house, so the Thenells invited the food and the staff to their cottage instead.

“It turned out to be a nice treat for them,” she said, “and nothing went to waste.”

Retreatants were ferried to the island aboard the boat Quo Vadis. The first captain was Fred Wesner, but a later captain was Judy Baudhuin’s brother, John May, of Forestville. At the time, in 1972, May was the youngest person to have obtained a captain’s license on the Great Lakes.

But that’s not his only connection. May and his wife Barbara were married at Holy Name.

“The director (Fr. Gary Crevier) said the Mass and the sisters sang in the choir,” he said. Since his and Barbara’s decision to marry had been made on the island, they try to return every year for their anniversary.

May said his job as Quo Vadis captain started each season with bringing over the work parties to get the center opened after the long winter.

“It took three weeks, and involved 30-50 people,” he said. “Three different teams took care of the mechanical side of things, the cleaning and painting, and the outside and yard work.”

The crews came on Saturday, “worked hard and got fed real well,” attended a special Mass for them on Saturday night, did more work Sunday morning, and then left around noon for the mainland.

When the season started, May brought a boatload of retreatants over around noon on Friday, and again Friday afternoon, and he remained on the island until they went back to the mainland on Sunday. But he didn’t sit idle.

“The big push was doing dishes,” he said. “Eventually, someone donated a dishwasher, and we were really happy about that.”

May got to know a lot of the priests and sisters who came and went over the years, as well as the retreatants.

“I used to tell them, the sign of a good retreat is when they could walk back instead of taking the boat.”

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