Monte Alverno ends 80-year history as retreat center

By Steve Wideman | For The Compass | January 3, 2014

APPLETON — Remembering years of quiet solitude, Capuchin Fr. Keith Clark ended 2013 — and a chapter in the history of the Green Bay Diocese — by locking the doors for good Dec. 31 on Monte Alverno Retreat and Spirituality Center.

Appleton’s Monte Alverno Retreat and Spirituality Center, operated by the Detroit-based Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, is pictured in a recent photo. The center closed its doors at the end of December. (Steve Wideman | For The Compass)
Appleton’s Monte Alverno Retreat and Spirituality Center, operated by the Detroit-based Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, is pictured in a recent photo. The center closed its doors at the end of December. (Steve Wideman | For The Compass)

“The center was like an oasis of peace in the midst of a very hectic world,” said Fr. Clark, director of Monte Alverno for the past eight years and former president of St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary. “We’ve had different religious groups — Lutheran, Episcopal and such — as well as a group of modernistic Buddhists from Neenah, who have used the center. A common denominator has been the quiet. The center was a place people could be quiet enough so they would be found by God. They made themselves available to God.”

The Detroit-based Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order announced in May plans to end its sponsorship of the center, citing dwindling personnel and financial resources.

Capuchin plans to close a sister facility, St. Anthony Spirituality Center in Marathon in central Wisconsin, were called off in October. A nonprofit corporation, St. Anthony’s of Marathon, Inc., bought the center with plans to maintain it as a Franciscan facility offering retreats and spiritual programs.

The Monte Alverno closing will not affect operation of St. Fidelis Friary, a Capuchin retirement facility located adjacent to the retreat center.

Efforts by a 13-member lay advisory group to Monte Alverno to keep the Appleton center in operation, including a $1 million fund-raising campaign to donate to the Capuchins to cover annual operating costs, failed and the advisory group has disbanded, Fr. Clark said.

Harlan Swift, chief financial officer for St. Joseph Province, said in an email reply to a reporter’s question that plans for Monte Alverno remain “to cease our operations there as of Dec. 31 and continue to work with entities that are interested in repurposing the facility.”

Swift was not immediately available to discuss more detailed information or if Monte Alverno would continue to operate as a religious facility.

Hidden among 25 wooded acres along the Fox River in Appleton, Monte Alverno was the first retreat center

built in Wisconsin, at the time with urging from Knights of Columbus members from Appleton, who had attended retreats at Marathon when that facility was a theological school for Capuchins.

In recent years the Appleton center has annually attracted about 2,400 retreat and program participants.

“It’s been a privilege to walk with the many people who attended retreats and made themselves available to God,” Fr. Clark said. “Giving people spiritual direction has been the most satisfying experience for me. People allow you deeply into their lives. That is quite a privilege.”

Fr. Clark said plans to close Monte Alverno first surfaced three years ago as part of an annual review, called a pastoral plan, of Capuchin operations. The latest version of the pastoral plan called for the closing of Monte Alverno and St. Anthony centers.

Monte Alverno currently has three full-time employees — an administrative assistant, facilities manager and cook — two part-time housekeepers, a staff of four Capuchin friars and a Franciscan nun.

“Our administrative assistant also works part-time for the province and will continue working out of this office for now,” Fr. Clark said.

Construction on Monte Alverno, named after the mountain where St. Francis received the stigmata — the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side — began in 1934.

The first retreat was held at Monte Alverno on May 4, 1935, with 23 Knights of Columbus in attendance.

The current facility has room for up to 56 retreatants, has a full commercial-type kitchen and a chapel that can comfortably hold two dozen people.

Fr. Clark said the Monte Alverno facility is in excellent physical shape.

“It was very well built in the 1930s and has been kept up very well,” Fr. Clark said.

The last retreat at Monte Alverno, a weekend retreat, was held in early December.

Capuchin friars from throughout the province gathered at Monte Alverno in November for a closing meeting and final religious service at the chapel.

Fr. Clark, who preached at the final Mass at the closing of the School Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Mt. Calvary in 2012 after 160 years of operation, said there will be no similar final public Mass at Monte Alverno.

 

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