Billionaire Joe Ricketts says God and Christianity are under siege. This lifelong Catholic proposes a time-honoredChristian strategy in the current battle for faith: a retreat — and a silent retreat at that — in the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
According to Forbes, Ricketts is the 395th richest person in the United States, with a fortune now worth an estimated $1.75 billion. In December, the TD Ameritrade founder spent $13.6 million to purchase 930 acres to build a retreat center in the rolling hills of Nebraska’s Platte River Valley between Omaha and Lincoln. Ricketts subsequently donated the land to a charitable nonprofit, The Cloisters on the Platte Foundation. Construction on the multimillion-dollar retreat center, dubbed “The Cloisters on the Platte,” begins this summer.
The property will feature a chapel and living space for up to 80 retreatants. There will be no set fee — only free-will donations will be accepted. It’s anticipated to open in 2018.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to make a large amount of money, and more than half of it I’ve given away,” Ricketts said. “More stuff doesn’t make you happy. Being wealthy is very nice, don’t get me wrong, but it has nothing to do with the happiness aspect of my life. It allows me to do things like building this.”
He’s building this place of peace and prayer, he says, at a time when “God is under siege.”
“Somewhere between 70% and 80% of people in the United States consider themselves Christian,” Ricketts said. “The vast majority of us are spiritual and religious, to one extent or another. But the minority — the atheists and the agnostics — are the ones that get all the publicity.”
“It seems like every time someone professes his or her faith in one way or another ... a crib scene at Christmas ... you have some knucklehead trying to get it shut down. When you take a look at anything that might be associated with the government, in the armed services or any government agency, you always find somebody that says there has to be a distinction between church and government, and you can’t have anything with respect to Jesus Christ — which is ridiculous, because our forefathers were very religious. They very much believed in God, and we are a Christian nation.”
The 73-year-old Ricketts was raised in a markedly different era. The son of a carpenter, he grew up in small-town Nebraska City, Neb., attending St. Mary’s Church. He earned a B.S. in economics at Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha. He became a stockbroker before co-founding a Nebraska-based discount stock brokerage in 1975. It was named Ameritrade in 1983. Today, it has nearly six million client accounts that total more than $600 billion in assets.
Ricketts maintained his faith while building his career and his company, but he says he might not be Catholic today if not for Creighton and for his wife of 52 years, Marlene. “Fortunately, Creighton had Jesuits I could have conversations with and help me make my religion more mature,” he said. “If I was not able to evolve spiritually ... I probably would have drifted away from Catholicism.”
He refers to his wife as “a very staunch Catholic” and says between her and Creighton “that has really kept me in the Catholic religion. I think I probably would always be Christian, but it’s a little easier to be Catholic when you have somebody helping you as you’re going through those growing-up changes.”
His faith also got a boost when he attended his second-ever retreat in the late 1980s. His first one, while in high school in Nebraska City, didn’t go so well.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’ll never go again.’ The priest was overbearing and dictatorial and demanding — things as a young man I revolted against. I said to myself, ‘A retreat is not something good.’”
That changed in 1987, when, at the urging of a friend, he attended a retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House-Demontreville in Lake Elmo, Minn.
“I needed some additional spiritual aspect to my life,” Ricketts recalled. “I went with a great deal of apprehension. I found out it was just what I needed.”
Ricketts learned Sunday Mass alone was not enough for him. The silent retreat taught him how to meditate and contemplate. He has attended at least 14 retreats at Demontreville since then. He has also persuaded two of his sons to attend, including Tom, now chairman of the Chicago Cubs (the Ricketts family acquired a 95% controlling interest in the team in October 2009). A third son, Pete, elected governor of Nebraska in 2014, hasn’t attended a retreat, but his father says he “is very much a Christian of the Catholic faith.”
Now, the elder Ricketts is trying to get Catholics throughout the Omaha Archdiocese to attend a retreat by making personal appearances before groups like the local Serra Club, at “That Man Is You” meetings and during Masses throughout Omaha, “sometimes three, four or five Masses,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese. “They are surprised ... someone of his status is taking the time to show up at a Sunday Mass. But he’s the one who had the personal experience. Joe knows no one can tell his story better than he can, so he tells his story with conviction and with passion, and that’s why I think people are listening to his testimony. For someone like him to stand before people in the pews and say, ‘My personal retreat experience changed my life; it can change yours’ — people listen to that.”
For now, Ricketts is encouraging individuals interested in the retreat center to consider attending silent Ignatian retreats that the Cloisters on the Platte Foundation is hosting this year and next at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb., and at Creighton University Retreat Center in Griswold, Iowa. One by one, he’s building a database of retreatants the foundation can tap when it opens in 2018.
A Ricketts representative declined to disclose the specific development budget but said the foundation’s goal is “to build a world-class facility anchored by the aesthetic principle of understated elegance.” Deacon McNeill says it will be a facility “second to none.”
The main chapel is being designed by Leo Daly, a 100-year-old Omaha firm that designed St. Margaret Mary Church, which Ricketts attends while in Omaha. (He lives in Little Jackson Hole, Wyo., and attends Our Lady of Peace in Pindale, Wyo.) Different architects will design the main retreat house and each of the seven residences that will house 10 retreatants apiece. He’s asking the architects to build something akin to the lodges he sees in the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains.
The surrounding 930 acres — some of which were once home to a ski resort — will offer retreatants plenty of time for contemplative strolls. Ricketts anticipates having 47 retreat weekends a year, with different Jesuit priests brought in to direct each retreat, all of which will be silent and based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Ricketts also has asked Omaha Archbishop George Lucas if local priests, perhaps retired ones, could help by saying Mass, hearing confessions and offering Benediction. He anticipates a layperson will manage the center.
“It’s a completely different model” from traditional Jesuit retreat centers, he said. There are 27 of those in the United States, but none have been built since the 1940s, according to Ricketts. The closest to Omaha are Demontreville in Minnesota and the White House Jesuit Retreat Center in St. Louis. Deacon McNeill counts about a half-dozen retreat centers in the Omaha area.
Ricketts took McNeill and Archbishop Lucas to The Cloisters on the Platte site not long after purchasing it in December, and there he showed them his vision.
“The natural setting, the cloistered environment — this is going to be so conducive to prayer and intimacy that, like Joe’s experience, those who attend a three-day silent retreat will have a profound, life-changing experience,” McNeill said.
McNeill says Archbishop Lucas has given Ricketts’ center his “strong endorsement and sees it as a gift to the people of the archdiocese.”
“As a priest, as a bishop, he has been on a retreat every single year for 40 years,” McNeill said. “He knows the value of a retreat, of increasing your intimacy with Christ. That’s what Joe’s trying to do. This is a gift not just to the archdiocese. It’s a regional gift. It’s going to pull retreatants from many different areas, not just Omaha. It’s something we can be proud of: to have this facility in the archdiocese.”
Register correspondent Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.
Learn more about the center at CloistersonthePlatte.com