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BY Carrie Swearingen
St. Francis Retreat Center lies on the border of southeastern Wisconsin's resort area of Brown's Lake. The onetime Franciscan monastery is set behind four—story pine trees on 160 acres of spiritually groomed grounds. In the past, visitors were uncommon in this small town of Burlington except for those coming to do business at Hi—Liter Graphics or the Nestle factory down the road. Then something interesting began to happen. The faithful began coming to St. Francis Retreat Center.
The center enables solitude seekers to reenter the secular 9—to—5 workday renewed. First a few visitors came, then hundreds, and later thousands, from Milwaukee, Chicago, and now from all over the United States. The center caters to both solitary soul—searchers and to groups of up to 200 who can take advantage of the center's meeting room facilities.
Few retreatants venture beyond the gardens, but a short walk to the proper—ty's edge uncovers a hidden river that serves as a backdrop to acres of foliage, including a tree reputed to have been three times struck by lighting and which now forms the shape of a cross. The center, which has become known for its sculptured grounds, also has a large chapel where a Sunday 9:30 a.m. Mass and weekday eucharistic adoration occur.
The Franciscan order was established by St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. Francis's commitment to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to all creation inspired millions to follow, including the Franciscan friars of the Assumption BVM province who were founded in 1887. Members of the order placed each stone on this magnificent grotto—laden property that was completed in 1929. With the decline of vocations in the years following, the order decided to convert the monastery into a retreat center. Before long, the friars found it necessary to move to the basement to free up the monastery's 56 single rooms for a spiritually hungry public. The friars minister not only to religious, and to men's and women's groups, but to teenagers, young adults, individuals, and groups seeking to develop their relationship with God and experience his presence in their lives.
Candles mark the monastery's quiet hallways and in each room, masterful icons, statues, and paintings and a Bible opened to the readings of the day help put pilgrims in a spiritual frame of mind. Each wing of the building includes comfortable lounges, meeting areas, kitchenettes, audio—visual equipment, a main dining room, and libraries. The Greccio hermitage is a preferential feature for those in need of solitude.
For day—trippers from Chicago it's a 90—minute drive to the Center—north on Interstate 94 to Wisconsin Route 11 West, right at County Road W for two miles, before coming to the gates just prior to the Route 36 intersection. Milwaukee residents need travel only 30 minutes south.
Visitors in spring and fall will find the most picturesque views and favorable climate. In the summer, retreatants gather in the open air pavilion dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes for Sunday Masses. Beneath the protective arches and shielded by pines, the pavilion provides a tranquil setting for the liturgy while calling to mind St. Francis's great love of nature.
There is a hidden tile and wood image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in nearby shrubbery. At the bottom of a hill flanked by blue spruce trees is an artificial hill of tufa rock where a depiction of Christ's Crucifixions stands. The ivory image of St. Michael the Archangel rests at the base of what has come to be known as the Calvary Grotto. Surrounding the grotto, pilgrims will find mosaic and stone stations of the cross.
A small castle, shielded behind an old oak tree, houses a mosaic reproduction of Our Lady of Czestochowa, patroness of Poland. The original icon is said to have been painted by St. Luke on a cypress table board that belonged to the Holy Family. Legend has it that the original image, painted in Ephesus, came to Czestochowa with King Walter of Opole in 1382. In 1430 Hussites (heretical Czechs) attacked the monastery and church there, removed the icon and, a short distance from the church, threw it to the ground and broke it into three pieces. One of the Hussites drew his sword against the icon, scoring it twice. Upon the third blow, the man was paralyzed. From that moment, all adversaries left the icon in peace and it has been accredited with other miracles including the saving of Poland from Swedish attack in 1856. So, it is fitting that here pilgrims find time to pray for all those facing persecution.
A pilgrimage to the Center would not be complete without a visit to the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, recalling Mary's 1858 appearance to Bernadette Soubirous at the Massabielle cave in Lourdes, France. Mary revealed her title as the Immaculate Conception and called all people to a greater devotion through praying the rosary. The grotto at the retreat center presents the 15 mysteries of the rosary in mosaic. Acave beneath the grotto houses a marble relief of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A short walk from the shrine is a chapel with mosaic art above its doorway. The chapel itself is a replica of the Portiuncula chapel where St. Francis began the Order of Friars Minor and the cross above the altar is a copy of the San Damiano Cross that spoke to St. Francis— calling him to repair the chapel, perhaps the Church as a whole, and to begin his personal ministry. Asmall framed stone of the original Portiuncula in Assisi is set into the wall of its interior.
Upon exiting the side door of the chapel, pilgrims’ eyes are drawn to a shrine commemorating the 1917 apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to young Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia in Portugal where Mary urged all faithful to examine their daily lives and their faith.
The pilgrim's walk concludes at the open arms of a statue of Christ the King with the instruments of his passion, the crown of thorns and the whip, at the base, as well as a toppled chalice symbolizing Jesus’ precious blood poured out for us. This statue once stood at the entrance to Christ the King Seminary in West Chicago, Ill.
Between Christ the King and the bell tower, there is a statue of St. Francis— humbly waiting in the trees, a bird on his shoulder. From the simple opaque statue departing pilgrims receive a clear message: live by example—as do the respected inhabitants of this friary, inspired by Francis and loved by a countless flock.
Varied spiritual approaches are taken at retreats at the center. Accommodations are $28 per night plus an optional $18 for three meals. For more information, telephone 414—763—3600.
Carrie Swearingen writes from Evanston, Illinois.