The word “retreat” can be a verb meaning to withdraw or to abandon, usually in a time of distress, or it can be a noun that means a haven or a sanctuary. For those on retreat at monasteries and convents, the word can carry both meanings: escaping from the blaring, buzzing, busyness of the world to a place that offers refuge.
Groups that want to gather at a monastery or a convent can do so for a day visit, an overnight stay or a multiday retreat, and spend hours communing with God, nature and one another. Many of the communities emphasize hospitality to visitors, stewardship of the Earth and respect for all living creatures, and those values carry over to meetings there.
“When people drive through our gates, they often say there’s a peace that comes over them,” said Sister Paula Damiano of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Wood, adding, “I think that’s what people are looking for in our world today more than anything — peace.”
Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods
Terre Haute, Indiana
When St. Mother Theodore Guerin was canonized in 2006, the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, northwest of Terre Haute, Indiana, were told they needed to build a permanent shrine for their founder. The shrine opened in October 2014, and “that’s when we began to see so many people coming for tours, workshops and retreats,” Damiano said.
The sisters welcomed 5,000 visitors last year. The sisters offer both guided individual and group tours. Groups that come for day visits or meetings at the Providence Spirituality and Conference Center usually want the entire tour, Damiano said, which includes the shrine, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and the White Violet Center. The shrine is sort of a mini museum. Visitors make their way through several rooms with exhibits and artifacts to tell the story of St. Guerin, a French-American who founded the order in 1840 as well as many schools. The shrine’s chapel houses St. Guerin’s remains.
From the laying of the cornerstone in 1886 to its consecration in 1907, the ornate limestone church took more than 20 years to complete. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel features an 8,000-pound altar carved from a single piece of marble. At the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, visitors can volunteer, attend educational workshops, take cooking classes and meet the sisters’ herd of alpacas.
The community can accommodate up to 400 people for daylong meetings or conferences. In the conference center, groups of 400 can use the O’Shaughnessy Dining Room with its tall, arched windows and barrel-vaulted ceiling, the site of the community’s weekly Sunday brunch buffet that’s open to the public. The center also has a 1,100-square-foot conference room, a lobby area and a nearby 500-square-foot cabinlike lodge. For overnight stays, the guesthouse can host 18 people in private rooms or three small, lakefront hermitages that are made of recycled, sustainable materials.
Monastery of the Holy Spirit
The Cistercian monks, better known as the Trappists, at Monastery of the Holy Spirit live in a cloistered community, but that doesn’t mean the monastery is closed to visitors. Quite the opposite: The monastery built a visitor center for the 80,000-plus visitors it receives every year, said Brother Callistus. Although guests may not see many monks in the public areas during a day visit or an overnight retreat, they can worship, sing and pray with them several times a day at the Abbey Church.
The 17,000-square-foot Heritage Center opened in 2011 and houses the visitor center, a historic barn and the Refectory Café, as well as the Abbey Garden Center, where guests can see the bonsai collection, and the Abbey Gift Shop, where they can buy some of the monks’ handiwork, which includes fudge, fruitcakes, cookies and stained-glass pieces. There’s also a courtyard, a memorial plaza and a prayer walk. When visitors first arrive, they watch a 20-minute video “of what it’s all about that puts it all in context,” Callistus said, and can also explore interactive exhibits and displays. Groups of up to 100 people can also use the center’s conference room.
“It’s a place for many folks, especially faith-based groups of all denominations,” Callistus said.
The monastery’s retreat house can accommodate up to 40 people for overnight stays. Private, guided group retreats can be arranged to focus on topics such as prayer, Scripture, spirituality and meditation.
Much of the monastery’s 2,300 acres is protected by conservation easements, but guests can picnic by a lake, read a book under a tree and explore nature trails, including the paved hiking-biking Rockdale River Trail, which starts at the monastery entrance and wends through the woods to the bridge over the South River. Visitors can also stroll through one of the monastery’s most popular offerings: Honey Creek Woodlands, a natural burial ground.