Seeking Silence: Retreat Centers Experience COVID Boom
Creative accommodations are linked to increased interest.
Heather Boll, 37, was feeling the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown last spring as she tried to manage her two businesses while guiding her three young children’s distance learning at her New Germany, Minnesota, home. Her mentor suggested she spend a weekend alone with God in the woods to relieve the stress.
Boll did find relief and a chance to listen to God in solitude during her first retreat at Pacem in Terris Hermitage Retreat Center in St. Francis, Minnesota (near Isanti) in May 2020, so she has gone back — during every season since then. The quarterly retreats, she said, “keep getting better and better.”
“There’s something about this space that is very sacred, and when I’m there I come back with my cup so full,” said Boll, who has her fall 2021 retreat scheduled. “I really count on that time to center and ground myself in the love, mercy and guidance of God and Jesus — and without that I get derailed.”
Demand for individual and group retreats coming out of pandemic lockdowns has been steady at retreat centers around the country, even though many are now welcoming fewer retreatants and are adapting their centers to comply with COVID-19 restrictions as they seek to make up losses from pandemic lockdowns.
With the increase in cases of the Delta variant, many of the centers interviewed for this article were recommending at the time of publication that their guests wear masks, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. At the same time, some centers are expanding facilities or retreat offerings to welcome back retreatants and appeal to new, non-traditional retreatants drawn during the pandemic by online retreats.
‘Need a Change of Space’
Nazareth Retreat Center in Grand Prairie, Texas, saw more requests for individual retreats over the last year and now that it has begun scheduling group retreats again, it is experiencing more demand for those retreats, said Sister Mary Louise Swift of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Since 2009, the sisters have run the retreat center, which is gradually welcoming larger groups of up to 16 men and women, down from 30 in 2019, when it offered double rooms, said Sister Francesca Witkowska.
Following the COVID-19 lockdown, retreatants, mostly Catholics in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, may seek solitude after a time of living, working and having family life in the same place, Sister Francesca said. “Everything was happening in the same place, and they need a change of space.”
Now, Sister Francesca said, more retreatants are returning to their normal routines. “People want to move on, and they want to organize their lives in a similar way as before.”
The center is now recommending but not requiring that its guests wear masks, Sister Francesca said. When the center fully resumes its offerings, retreatants may choose from themes including prayer; Catholic spiritual traditions; Advent and Lent Scripture series; and learning about the Divine Office.
A steady number of retreatants at Longlea Conference Center in Boston, Virginia, are signing up for silent retreats focused on aspects of Church teaching, said Dorothy Maloney, board treasurer at the center, which is located about 75 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The center was established by Opus Dei in 2001.
The center’s two women’s retreats this fall will be full, Maloney said. Men’s retreats at the center are also filling up.
Opus Dei, Latin for “work of God,” is a personal prelature whose pastoral mission is to promote the universal call for holiness by providing spiritual support for laymen and women as well as priests. It has 90,000 members worldwide.
Each retreat at Longlea will be open to 20 retreatants rather than the pre-pandemic capacity of 34, when double rooms were available, Maloney said.
Pacem in Terris in Minnestoa has also made adjustments for COVID-19 safety and plans to recommend that staff and retreatants wear masks in its main building, said Tim Drake, the executive director, who once worked for the Register. But the center is not reducing occupancy of the 16 individual hermitages it offers because retreatants already spend their retreats in solitude in the small, self-contained cabins surrounded by woods, explained Drake. In fact, demand for retreats has been so strong that the center is building three additional hermitages at the 240-acre retreat center located about 40 miles north of Minneapolis.
The center, which began welcoming hermits in 1988, closed from mid-March to mid-May last year during the lockdown, but from last fall onward, the center has had a consistent weekend waiting list, Drake said.
The increase in demand, along with fundraising, has helped Pacem in Terris recover much of the income lost during the lockdown. It is also helping to fund the new hermitages it hopes to complete by late fall. The beginning stages of contruction recently began for Pacem’s newest three hermitages. Two of the three names have been chosen, according to Drake. One of the patrons will be St. Josephine Bakhita. The other will be dedicated in the name of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Just half of Pacem in Terris retreatants are Catholic, and since many now work many hours in home offices, they are scheduling retreats for silence and solitude with no expectations, Drake said. A guest told him that the need for silence is now greater because the new circumstances caused by COVID-19 have increased noise in this guest’s life.
‘God’s Message for You’
Midtown Manhattan might not seem like a place to find solitude, but Isabel Macalintal, 58, has found refreshment and inspiration at the Opus Dei conference center, Murray Hill Place, on annual silent retreats there for 10 years. “Away from the hustle and bustle from the chores at home, it’s like a second home to me,” said Macalintal, a married Opus Dei member who commutes to Manhattan for work from White Plains, New York.
When she made a retreat in September 2020, New York was not completely out of lockdown, and her life was greatly affected, including mourning loved ones who had died of COVID-19.
Macalintal committed herself to focusing on God’s will in her life during the retreat.
“Most importantly in the retreat, in the silence, you listen to God’s message for you,” she said, adding, “I did find answers to questions. I did find consolation from Our Lord. I found I was reassured by his love. I was more recollected and inspired and refreshed, no longer unsettled or frazzled or confused even.”
Macalintal made another retreat at Murray Hill Place in February. Retreats have started up slowly this year at the center, but registration at both men’s and women’s retreats grew during the spring, with the last two women’s retreats filling up, said Brian Finnerty, U.S. communication director for Opus Dei.
“People were nervous early this year about going on retreat, but when spring came, it felt like the end of a long winter,” Finnerty said. “Folks were glad finally to emerge from hiding, to give thanks, and spend quiet time talking with God on a retreat.”
Some first-time attendees at retreats visited the retreat center online before later coming in person.
Longlea and the Opus Dei-run Yuma Center in Washington, D.C., offered Zoom retreats during the lockdown that were viewed by hundreds, Finnerty said.
When the Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles suspended the retreats scheduled at their Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Alhambra, California, in March 2020, they sent retreatants audio files from past conferences but later posted new retreats on Vimeo, said Sister Meredith of Christ Crucified, retreat center spokesperson. On average, they had 700 participants — 70% of them new.
“During the pandemic time is when we really felt we were able to provide for a lot of people,” Sister Meredith said. The sisters began charging for the retreats in November, and with online donations, they recovered some of the operating costs lost during the 18-month closure, Sister Meredith said.
As they reopened in the last few months, the center, which celebrated its 80th anniversary this summer, has revised its vision of outreach to include the new non-traditional retreatants, Sister Meredith told the Register.
“We know our mission is most tangibly felt on campus when we have face-to-face interactions,” she said. “We never want to lose that. But I think this portion of virtual, we want to continue to look into that space in order to touch people who maybe are homebound or can’t come cross country to be here still in that way.”
And to reach and attract younger retreatants, the sisters will offer a new type of retreat this fall called “Made for Greater,” which will address questions of identity, who God is, sin, prayer and discerning life’s purpose. Led by the sisters, the retreat will provide more one-on-one attention, Carmelite spirituality and small-group discussions. The model was inspired by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez’s pastoral letter, “For Greater Things You Were Born.”
Sacred Heart will continue to offer priest-led retreats several times a month starting this fall. It also hosts individual and day retreats, and other programs, but it now can accommodate 50 retreatants instead of the 80 it hosted prepandemic, Sister Meredith said.
Retreatants can spend time in the center’s three and a half acres of gardens, which have been enhanced, and seating was added during the closure.
However retreat centers were providing opportunities to withdraw from daily life to be with God before the pandemic, the lockdown was a learning experience for those who run the centers.
“I think what I learned is the great need for being flexible and accommodating and just sometimes it has to change one day to another,” Sister Francesca said.
The pandemic may not be over, but when Macalintal returned on retreat in February to the Opus Dei retreat center in New York, she had a realization about the changes brought on by her simultaneous duties of work, teaching grandchildren, cooking and caring for her home.
“I realized that if you give glory to God while you’re wearing your worker’s hat, if you give glory to God while you’re wearing your teacher’s hat, if you give glory to God while you’re cooking and doing house chores, the common denominator is to give glory to God in the most ordinary things that we do.”