Retreat House Ministry, Part I

From the time of the Holy Founder there has been a tradition among us of welcoming laymen to our communities for a few days of spiritual renewals. In each monastery there was a room or two for priests and laymen to make a personal retreat. A record was kept of “Those who made a retreat with us.”

During the nineteenth century and right on to the present time a more formalized and organized program of retreats was conducted at our Roman Motherhouse, especially for the clergy and the religious of Rome. Many Roman seminarians made their ordination retreat at Sts. John and Paul. One such American seminarian was William O’Connell. He preserved fond memories of his retreats on the Coelian Hill and later in 1907 as the Archbishop of Boston invited the Passionists to build a monastery in his city and to open its doors for retreats.

The Boston monastery was dedicated in May, 1911. In December of that same year the first retreat for laymen was conducted in this Boston monastery. There is strong evidence that this was the first closed retreat for laymen in the entire United States. This is the beginning of the retreat movement in the American Church and in the two Provinces of American Passionists.

In the very early years of Holy Cross Province our religious were aware of this heritage. The first monastery to be built in the new Province included rooms for retreatants. I have found a small brochure here in the Chicago monastery which was written while the monastery was under construction. In this explanation of the Passionist residence on Harlem Avenue we read:

“The monastery throws open its doors to all who wish to fly from their work or business and spend a few days in the invigorating atmosphere of cloisteral seclusion. This has been made a special feature of the new building at Norwood Park. A number of apartments on the first floor have, been especially arranged and exclusively set aside for the accommodation of gentlemen who wish to spend at times a few days in this Spiritual Eden. To obtain the singular, but priceless boon, the new building is purposely located in the northwestern section of Chicago, practically in the country and yet but a stone’s throw from the business center of the city, so that priests, lawyers, judges, men of every avocation in life may be able, without loss of time and incurring great expense, to run out and take a few days rest and spiritual vacation, soothe their weary nerves by inhaling the pure air in the surrounding gardens and meadows, and then having satisfied their spiritual wants, return light-hearted and encouraged to resume their arduous task and wage anew the battle of life. All are welcome and the religious will gladly aid them with an experience so delightful and beneficial that they will long for its frequent repetition.”

The Provincial Chapters of both Provinces in 1917 approved the ministry of laymen’s retreats in our monasteries. In Holy Cross Province the decree read:

“The Venerable Chapter gives its cordial approval to the excellent work of laymen’s retreats in our monasteries.”

The decree of the Eastern Province reads:

“The Chapter recommends that all houses of the Province, especially St. Ann’s Retreat in Scranton, Pennsylvania, take up the work of laymen’s retreats as far as possible.”

Commenting on the beginnings of the retreat movement in the Eastern Province Father Gerard Rooney wrote in 1963:

“Though there was some murmuring against this new activity, yet the Province on the whole favored these monastic retreats for laymen, and in 1917, the nineteenth Provincial Chapter ordered its extension to all the houses of the Province” (The Passionist Heritage).

In the early 1920s further steps were made in the development of the retreat movement among Passionists. The Eastern Province opened a separate retreat house at Pittsburgh in 1920. In that same year a meeting was held at Pittsburgh which led to the formation of the Laymen’s Retreat League. In 1923 the Provincial Chapter of our Province issued the following statement:

“The Venerable Chapter renews its approval of laymen’s retreats in our monasteries, and urges that these retreats be fostered in our various houses where conditions render this possible without interference with the regular observance.”

Efforts were, indeed, made to hold such retreats at the Immaculate Conception Monastery in Chicago. It seems that the movement never became truly organized there.

It was on January 19, 1923, that Bishop John J. Cantwell of Los Angeles and San Diego wrote to Father Eugene Creegan, the Provincial. Bishop Cantwell offered the Passionists a foundation in his Diocese. Father Eugene responded at once that he and his Consultors were “highly gratified” with the Bishop’s offer. In April Father Eugene traveled to Los Angeles to speak to the Bishop and to look over the situation.

From the very beginning Father Eugene had the retreat house movement in mind in accepting the Bishop’s request to go to Los Angeles. By November of 1925 a meeting was held at our property in Sierra Madre called “Monte Oliva.” This meeting led to the formation of the Laymen’s Retreat League. The next summer, in July of 1926, the first laymen’s retreat was held at “Monte Oliva” with twenty-five men present. Father Ignatius Conroy was the Retreat Master. This was the famous “Retreat under the Rubber Tree.” This rubber tree still stands just north of the kitchen of the monastery.

That very same summer the Provincial Chapter was held. Father Jerome Reutermann was elected Provincial. It seems that he did not share Father Eugene’s enthusiasm for the Los Angeles foundation. Matters almost came to a halt in Sierra Madre as the new Curia committed itself to the foundation of a monastery in Detroit.

The Provincial Chapter in 1929 did not re-elect Father Jerome Reutermann, but in his place turned once again to Father Eugene Creegan. The Chronicler of the small community waiting at Sierra Madre wrote as follows:

“To the great joy of the brethren here Fathers Eugene, Denis and Anselm were elected Provincial and Consultors, respectively, at the Provincial Chapter of 1929. After much discussion the capitular Fathers determined, first of all, not to give-up the Sierra Madre foundation as some suggested, and, secondly, to build a monastery as soon as possible.”

The Chronicler then continues as he gives the history of the foundation of our first retreat house.

“On February 8, 1930, Father Provincial and his Consultors arrived here to see about making a start on building for laymen’s retreats and for the religious. He paid a visit to the Bishop. This was the 12th of February. He at this time requested the Bishop for his permission to start the laymen’s retreat Guild. His Lordship in a very gracious way reminded the Provincial that he had waited over five years for us to start the work, but finally felt it should not be postponed any longer, so entrusted the work to the Jesuits some two years previous. The Jesuits had gone to some expense to start and continue these retreats and so the Bishop thought it only just that he should consult Father Sullivan, S.J., the local Superior, and that he would give Father Provincial the verdict a week later. Father Provincial, therefore, paid Bishop Cantwell another visit on the appointed date, February 19, and was delighted to learn that Father Sullivan, far from objecting to our entering the field of laymen’s retreats, was very glad to have us share in the work with the Jesuits. The Bishop was very happy over the removal of what may have been the difficulty to our share in the work and encouraged Father Provincial to make an early start in forming a Guild and planning to build.”

Action now began in earnest. There was a meeting of interested laymen and the formation of a new league or Guild on February 23, 1930. Father Edmund Walsh was appointed Vicar and instructed to plan for the building. In June, 1931, Father Edmund Walsh was able to negotiate for the Province a loan of $50,000 from the Lafayette-Southside Bank and Trust Company of St. Louis. Mr. William Schiltz, father of our Father Keith Schiltz, of Sierra Madre was engaged as architect and builder. The ground-breaking took place on September 8th. The new monastery and retreat house was dedicated on May 1st of 1932 and Father Eugene Creegan, the Provincial, conducted the first group of retreatants on May 5-7, 1932.

The Mater Dolorosa Retreat House would remain the only retreat house in Holy Cross Province until the end of the Second World War. During those early years the retreats grew and expanded. During a good part of 1943 the part of the monastery reserved for retreatants was taken over by the U.S. Army for convalescing soldiers. When the War was over we realized that a separate retreat house should be built. The story of the new retreat house at Sierra Madre and the opening of our other retreat houses will be related in another jubilee essay.

Very Rev. Roger Mercurio, C. P.
Provincial Superior
July 16, 1981

Please contact Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. at [email protected] if you have any comments. Permission of Archives needed for publication.