Prayerful Oasis for Priests: Retreat House at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament
A visit to Hanceville, Alabama
On the grounds of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, in Hanceville, Alabama, nestled between the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and pastures with white picket fences where the sisters’ cattle graze, lies a retreat house for priests, deacons, seminarians and religious brothers in vows.
The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament has become well-known through the years, particularly since Mother Angelica, following an inspiration of the Lord, was the impetus behind this impressive edifice with the Eucharistic Lord at the center. The shrine has a number of devotional locations, including a Lourdes Grotto and crèche chapel, plus this unique retreat house.
This home, within a short walk of the shrine, is one for which the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration provide a special care, remembering those who visit by name before the Blessed Sacrament.
Surrounded by natural beauty and rolling hills, peace and stillness are almost palpable.
The retreat house maintains a comfortable, calm and prayerful atmosphere that is conducive to enter into conversation with Christ and to find one’s rest in him.
With private guest rooms, a beautiful chapel, workout room, library, dining rooms and common areas, it is a place for retreatants to take time apart, to be rejuvenated and to find peace and prayer.
Through the generosity of donors, the retreat house is available to guests free of charge.
Upon arrival, retreatants pull up to a house affectionately termed “the Barn” for its structure reminiscent of a large white barn, with swings on the front porch.
Guests are greeted by Micah Wright, the manager, or one of the several other laymen who live in residence, working at the shrine or at the retreat house and providing the warmth of a “brotherhood” when retreatants arrive. In the hall leading up to the chapel, one finds a large photograph of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, the community Mother Angelica founded and with which she lived. One still lesser-known fruit of her life of prayer and contemplation is this retreat house.
The Tower of David Chapel on the first floor of the house is quite impressive, and fittingly so. Priests have the opportunity to celebrate a private Mass in this chapel and/or to concelebrate at one of the daily Masses at the shrine. The first floor also houses the kitchen and refectory. One distinct feature of the refectory are the images of the saints and their relics lining the walls, a reminder of the Banquet of the Lamb. Dishes here can include Southern specialties, and, at times, beef from the sisters’ cattle.
On the upper level of the retreat house, one finds private guest rooms and common areas. Guest rooms come complete with their own bathrooms. The presence of religious art throughout the house gives the peaceful ambiance of a monastery or seminary. The house is well-kept and quiet, providing a serene setting to seek God in prayer. Among the special amenities found in the rooms is chrism-scented soap, reminding priest retreatants of their ordination.
“The retreat house is a calm oasis in the all-too-often tumultuous life of priests today. For seminarians, it is a place to centralize their lives on the one thing necessary,” said Father Paschal Mary, the shrine administrator, giving a little snapshot of the retreat house.
A member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word (MFVAs), the men’s religious community founded by Mother Angelica, Father Paschal sees firsthand the fruits of these personal retreats: “I have always heard good things from priests staying [here]. Often, I have seen the difference in the priests who have come: They come worn; they leave refreshed.”
Father Paschal also relates how the retreat house is connected to the shrine as a whole and speaks to its Eucharistic focus: “Since Our Lord’s presence in the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of the shrine’s life, the priest is held in high esteem. We try to do everything we can to give them the place they need for good, quality prayer.”
One treasure at the shrine is the hidden vocation of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. Mother Dolores Marie, the current abbess, shared with the Register that the sisters’ relation to the retreat house is “one of prayer support.”
Mother Dolores said Wright shares the names of the retreatants with the sisters, who then place the names on the cloister side of the chapel and pray that the guests have “a fruitful and refreshing retreat.”
Living a spiritual maternity for priests is not new to this community. Mother Dolores shared that this can be traced back to France in the 1800s, with foundress Mother Marie Ste. Claire. Through the years, the Poor Clares have had what is called “priest week,” in which a sister offers her Holy Hour for priests and the priesthood. Father Paschal also commented on the spiritual maternity of the sisters: “The retreat house is a tangible expression of the sister’s prayer for the sanctification of all priests and a sign of their spiritual motherhood for seminarians.” The priests are also grateful for the gift of the retreat house and for the prayers of the sisters.
“Coming to the shrine on retreat is really about the whole shrine experience,” he said. Currently, all retreats at the house are private and personal retreats. While one can pray before the Blessed Sacrament or in one’s room, he can also take advantage of the beautiful grounds, the crèche chapel, the Lourdes Grotto, outdoor Stations of the Cross and other places of devotion on the shrine grounds.
Those who come for retreats at the shrine are grateful for their experience and for the peace and beauty they encounter there. Wright said many retreatants will send a note of gratitude and leave a donation. He also relates that the “biggest compliment” they receive is of “priests who come back. … Repeat retreatants is a sign of a good house.”
Father Wade Menezes, who has made retreats at the shrine, says the retreat experience is a blessing.
“It’s a wonderful place for priests and seminarians to come and make a self-conducted retreat with their own spiritual reading and spiritual exercises,” said the priest, assistant general of the Fathers of Mercy and an EWTN series host. “There are [MFVA] priests on-site at the shrine … who daily hear confessions at regularly scheduled times. A good, holy and reverent confession should be part of anyone’s personal and spiritual renewal.”
Wright encourages readers to spread the word about the retreat house: “The biggest thing I want to tell people is: Have your priests come … and I love it when we get seminarians, because I look at it as an investment in the priesthood.”
Father Daniel Liu, director of campus ministry at St. Peter Catholic Center in Waco, Texas, which serves students at Baylor University, has seen the good fruits of his time of retreat at the shrine and encourages other priests to take part, as well: “I am very confident that my retreats there have allowed me to serve as a priest with … more courage and generosity. … I would encourage other priests to make a retreat there because it is very conducive to rest and refreshment, which so many priests need in their humanity — and spiritually it can remind you of why you became a priest, as the shrine itself is dedicated to the Eucharist, adoration and prayer.”
Father Patrick Ike Nwokoye, the chaplain at St. Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, also encourages his brother priests to come on retreat: “I have been going to the shrine for over a decade, and my time there has proven to be blessed, filled with great joy. … Every time I am able to go to the shrine, I always come back thanking God for the experience.”
Laura Dittus writes from
where she serves as a theology adviser for EWTN.
For those who are interested in coming on retreat at the shrine, reservations are made on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are a limited number of rooms. Reservations, at least 24 hours in advance, can be made via the website PriestRetreat.com. Retreats are generally two to six days in length, with an average of four days.
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