Holy Name Retreat House closes

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | January 23, 2014

Operating costs, low guest numbers cited for closing of Chambers Island facility

ALLOUEZ — Mounting operational expenses and dwindling retreat registrations are to blame for the closing of Holy Name Retreat House, according to Tammy Basten, chancellor of the Green Bay Diocese.

Sunrise on Chambers Island paints a warm glow on the exterior of Holy Name Retreat House. The Green Bay Diocese announced Jan. 17 that the retreat facility will close. No plans are available at this time for the facility’s future. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Sunrise on Chambers Island paints a warm glow on the exterior of Holy Name Retreat House. The Green Bay Diocese announced Jan. 17 that the retreat facility will close. No plans are available at this time for the facility’s future. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

The diocese announced Jan. 16 that Holy Name, located on Chambers Island in Door County, will close. It will continue to maintain the property and no plans have yet been made to sell it.

In a press release, the diocese said that studies have been conducted and initiatives were launched over the last five years to keep the retreat center afloat. “Unfortunately, the attempts to boost the number of retreatants and maintain the property have proven nonsustainable,” said the release.

“As we look toward the new evangelization, we need to reevaluate how we deliver the traditional retreat experience,” said Bishop David Ricken. “Over the last few years, we have seen a movement toward more parish-based participation in retreats and we are fortunate that we have many regional, year-round retreat centers that can meet their needs.”

News of the retreat house closing comes on the heels of last month’s closing of Monte Alverno Retreat and Spirituality Center in Appleton, which operated for 80 years under the sponsorship of the Capuchin Franciscans.

Holy Name opened as a diocesan retreat house in the summer of 1951. Comprised of approximately 70 acres of island property, the retreat house was gifted to the diocese by George Baudhuin. Throughout most of its 62-year history, Holy Name attracted thousands of people from around the state and beyond to Chambers Island for retreats lasting several days to one week. Retreats were held each year from May to September.

In an interview with The Compass, Basten said closing the retreat house was not a pleasant decision. “Everybody enjoys the place. It’s just that we’re not getting the number of retreatants we need to make it a sustainable property.”

Basten said that there are more than 300,000 Catholics in the Green Bay Diocese and in 2013 Holy Name had 758 retreatants, “which basically represents less than one percent of those who regularly attend Mass.”

A retreatant sits on a swing outside Holy Name Retreat House on Chambers Island and enjoys the sunrise. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
A retreatant sits on a swing outside Holy Name Retreat House on Chambers Island and enjoys the sunrise. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

She said guests were paying $210 to attend a retreat while it was costing the diocese $409 “as it relates to food, transportation, administration.”

Over many years, said Basten, “very generous donations came in and that helped a lot. It just wasn’t enough” to continue the operation, which also faced many capital improvements.

“From a stewardship perspective, there are other ministries (needing financial support),” added Basten. “It just did not seem to make sense any longer.”

She explained that retreatant numbers were down 24 percent from 2012 to 2013, from 997 to 758. A majority of those attending retreats are repeat guests (63 percent) and older than 50 (90 percent). A closer look showed that 24 percent were age 51-60; 36 percent were 61-70; and 30 percent were 71-80 years old.

The most popular retreats were ones given by Bishop David Ricken and Bishop Robert Morneau.

The trend in retreats today, said Basten, is for one-day retreats. These can be held in parishes or at one of the other retreat centers located in the diocese.

“One of our challenges for many years has been the fact that this facility is on an island and therefore the challenge becomes transporting things like fuel, retreatants and supplies,” she said. “Each time we’d have to transport these items, it was a cost that would take place.”

Medical emergencies have always been a concern, she added.

According to Basten, the diocese needs to review its options “to determine what the best disposition will be for the property.”

“The corporation will continue on because there is lots of work to do as it relates to the property, the marina, the dock,” she said. “We have agreements with entities on each of those levels and we will be looking at making sure those relationships continue as appropriate. We need to make the best decision on behalf of the Holy Name Retreat House, Inc.”

In the next two or three weeks the diocese will begin refunding anyone who signed up for retreats in 2014, said Basten.

The fifth annual fundraising “Gala” event, planned for March 2, 5-9 p.m., at the Rock Garden Supper Club in Green Bay, will still be held, said Basten. Instead of a fundraiser, “it will be a celebration of tradition and history (of Holy Name) and will include a closing prayer service.” The event is open to the public.

Bishop Robert Morneau has been giving two retreats each year at Holy Name for more than 25 years. In an email to The Compass, he said his memories of Chambers Island include its “incredible beauty” and the dedicated people who helped make the retreat experience special for so many people.

In an interview in 2011, Bishop Morneau said that Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” identified the important role Holy Name played in peoples’ spiritual lives.

“One of the great needs today in our world is for silence and solitude and they are going to find it here,” he told The Compass. “You probably won’t find it as readily in other places, where there’s talking on retreat and a little more social activities. At Chambers Island they are going to find (God) through silence and solitude if they give themselves to the experience.”

Bishop Morneau said the retreat house’s island location made it s memorable experience for visitors. It was also the reason for its demise.

“The location of Holy Name Retreat House on an island presented significant problems: travel, hauling everything over by boat, no electricity except by generators, only open for a few months, spiders and bats,” said Bishop Morneau, adding that he will miss jogs around Lake Mackaysee and the sunrises and sunsets on the island.

Barbara Conder, who served as executive director of Holy Name Retreat House for the last four seasons, along with her husband, Dan, said news of the retreat house’s closing came as a shock.

“When I was offered the position, I didn’t hesitate. I knew something was ahead that was greater than anything I could have ever imagined,” she told The Compass. “It wasn’t so much the duties or responsibilities. It was about the people who were there and what they brought to me.”

Conder said she initially approached the position with a prideful attitude, but was humbled by the people she met and their stories. “I got so much more out of what people gave me spiritually,” she said. “How people really unfolded their spiritual lives at Holy Name and weren’t at all embarrassed to share that. We had over 68,000 people go through (the retreat house doors in 62 years). I think that will always be very holy ground because of the people who were there and because the people hallowed the ground. They brought their spiritual lives to the 70-plus acres and it elevated the ground to something more daunting.”

Conder said she has no idea what she and Dan will do next. Just like when they arrived in 2010, they took a “leap of faith” in accepting the position at Chambers Island. Now they are taking another leap of faith. “This time it’s going to be a little more difficult,” she said. “I’m going to miss (Holy Name) horribly.

“I came to Green Bay to serve the diocese and to serve the church and my leap of faith is to just wait and see where that leads,” added Conder. “Sometimes waiting is hardest though.”

History of Holy Name Retreat House

1816: Col. John Miller was ordered to transport the 3rd regiment of the U.S. Infantry from Mackinac Island to Green Bay to establish a military post. On the journey, one of Miller’s commanding officers, Col. Talbot Chambers became sick and died. In his memory, Miller renamed Le Baye Island Chambers Island, which once had been inhabited by Potawatomi Indians.

1920s: A real estate development boom led to converting the island into a vacation haven. A hotel, airstrip, golf course, homes and businesses were established. Included in the development was a log mansion owned by a Chicago businessman named L.J. Drake.

1930: The economic boom quickly busted and the vacation haven was mostly abandoned during the Great Depression.

June 8, 1951: Bishop Stanislaus Bona and Auxiliary Bishop John Grellinger visited Chambers Island at the invitation of George Baudhuin and his four brothers, Ralph, Francis, John and Clarence. In the early 1940s, George Baudhuin bought the L.J. Drake properties. They offered to donate the Drake mansion to the diocese for retreat purposes. Bishop Bona accepted the offer on a one-year trial period to determine its success.

Aug. 3, 1951: Twenty-five men boarded the Sonja boat at Fish Creek and traveled the eight-mile journey to Chambers Island for the first retreat at Holy Name Retreat House. Three other retreats followed that summer with a total of 97 men participating. Satisfied with the trial, Bishop Bona accepted the property deed and the diocese assumed ownership of the retreat ground. It was operated by the Diocesan Union of Holy Name Societies, with Fr. John Mueller as its first director.

May 23, 1952: Fr. Anthony Koeferl, dean of the Door County Deanery, christened a 38-foot boat with two engines that was purchased for $5,000. It became known as the “Quo Vadis,” Latin for “Where Are You Going.” Four years later, a new Quo Vadis was purchased for $15,000. The larger and more powerful boat, measuring 42 feet, could accommodate 60 passengers.

Feb. 29, 1956: Fr. Mueller was appointed pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in Two Rivers and Fr. Sylvester Borusky was named second director of Holy Name Retreat House.

1953-1956: Many improvements, purchases and additions were made to the retreat house property, including additional land to provide privacy. About $47,000 was spent on upgrades, the funds coming from donations and retreat fees.

June 11, 1957: Dedication of the new retreat house chapel was held. The chapel was built in one year at a cost of $10,000.

The blessing of Holy Name Retreat House chapel in 1957. Among those pictured are Msgr. Chester Ropella, second from left, Fr. Andrew Lindsmeyer, Bishop Stanislaus Bona, Fr. John Mueller, Fr. Don Feller, Msgr. Joseph Marx. (Green Bay Diocese Archives photo | Herb Reynolds)
The blessing of Holy Name Retreat House chapel in 1957. Among those pictured are Msgr. Chester Ropella, second from left, Fr. Andrew Lindsmeyer, Bishop Stanislaus Bona, Fr. John Mueller, Fr. Don Feller, Msgr. Joseph Marx. (Green Bay Diocese Archives photo | Herb Reynolds)

Spring 1960: Dedication of a new retreat house, called the J. Leslie Sensebrener Residence. Cost of the addition, $150,000, was paid for by Sensebrener, a frequent retreatant.

Fall 1960: A new dock was completed. Edward Hamilton donated a yacht, appraised at $30,000 to the retreat house. Funds from the sale of the yacht paid for construction of a new dock named after Hamilton.

August 1962: A new Quo Vadis was christened. It was designed for 90 passengers. The new craft would cost $90,000. It was built by Marinette Marine Company at the cost of materials. Labor was provided for free. The remaining $30,000 was financed by funds received from sale of the old boat and by J. Leslie Sensebrenner. A diesel engine would be installed in 1964.

1963: According to a brochure, the first scheduled retreat to include women is held. It is a retreat for young couples.

Spring 1966: The Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross agree to staff the retreat house, replacing Fred and Ann Wiesner and a volunteer staff.

Fall 1969: Construction of a break wall to hold erosion of island bank completed at cost of $40,000

July 23, 1976: The Spirit, predecessor to The Compass, publishes an eight-page supplement commemorating the 25th anniversary of the founding of Holy Name Retreat House. The centerpiece was a long article by Fr. John Mueller, first retreat director, written in 1952. It recalled the founding of Holy Name.

June 2000: During its 50th anniversary year, a $1.3 million building renovation project is completed. It included a building addition and remodeling of existing buildings.

2010: Holy Name celebrates its 60th anniversary. Newly appointed director, Barbara Conder, searches for new ways to attract retreatants from around the Midwest. A “parish ambassadors” network is established to encourage more local Catholics to make a retreat.

Jan. 16, 2014: The Diocese of Green Bay announces it will close Holy Name Retreat House.

Sources: Chapel dedication booklet, 1957; Wisconsin Historical Society; Peninsula Genealogical Society; History of Holy Name by Richard Pigeon, 1969; Compass news articles.

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