Local retreat centers adapt to life in the pandemic

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The front entrance to Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington. (Photo provided)

Like many other programs and institutions in the archdiocese, Catholic retreat centers had to close their doors when the stay-at-home order went into effect for COVID-19 at the end of March. Since then, they have had to make decisions on how to continue their ministries during the pandemic.

The Joseph and Mary Retreat House in Mundelein, which is operated by the Archdiocese of Chicago, was closed until Father’s Day weekend in June, when it hosted the seven transitional deacons being ordained priests for the archdiocese.

With such a small group, the retreat center, which normally can accommodate 50 retreatants, was able to test out its social distancing measures and efforts to keep the space safe and clean, said Msgr. John Canary, the retreat house’s executive director.

Since then, the house has hosted other groups for retreats and have more scheduled.

“We put together some guidelines so, like most places who have people come, they have to fill out a questionnaire that’s about whether they’ve had any exposure to COVID-19 and also where they’re coming from, like if they are coming from out of town,” he said.

The retreat house guidelines follow archdiocesan and state requirements. Staff at the house take people’s temperatures when they first come in and give them a copy of the COVID-19 guidelines from the archdiocese and the state. Retreatants are asked to adhere to the guidelines, which include frequently sanitizing their hands at stations set up throughout the house.

“Our challenges were both the chapel and the dining room. So one thing we decided was we’d limit the number of retreatants here at any given time,” he said. “We limited it to 18 to 20.”

In the chapel, seats are marked so that people can easily maintain a safe social distance. The house limits the number of people at each table during meals, and it has staggered meal times to ensure safe distancing.

The retreat house also has an outdoor patio where people can eat and relax.

Housekeeping staff regularly sanitize rooms after they are used and the chapel is cleaned twice a day.

“At least so far, things have gone well,” Canary said. “Before we even began with the deacons in June, we did a deep clean of the place.”

Retreats have taken on a new meaning during the pandemic.

“In general, the people who come say they really needed this time,” he said. “I think people have been under a lot of pressure, so it is beneficial that they come away, if they can get away, and spend time in spiritual renewal.”

The Cabrini Retreat Center in Des Plaines is in a different situation than Joseph and Mary Retreat House.

The center mostly hosts Kairos retreats for teens, and since those are centered around lots of interaction between the young people, reopening isn’t possible right now, said Nancy Golan, director of the Cabrini Retreat Center in Des Plaines.

Kairos is a four-day retreat based on the Ignatian spiritual exercises and is specifically geared toward teens. It’s often a life-changing experience for them.

Because the vast majority of guests are students, the retreat center has stopped hosting in-person retreats for the time being.

“We keep monitoring, hoping that we are going to be able to return to some semblance of the kind of sacred space we provided in the past,” Golan said. “I think right now we’re still in the dark of just what that means, just as the schools struggle with how they’re going to come back.”

Instead, Cabrini has pivoted to virtual events. The retreat center is owned by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mother Frances Cabrini’s community, so during the pandemic, the center’s staff has collaborated with the National Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini, located across from Lincoln Park Zoo.

Staff members started a series of national webinars at the shrine and are talking with the community’s other Cabrini shrine in New York about doing more.

“As a lot of retreat centers are doing, we’ve gone to a virtual format. We’ve learned a lot about technology,” Golan said.

They have also expanded their social media efforts with Kairos alumni who are no longer minors and with parish youth ministers to develop and provide virtual sacred space for teens.

“We have been doing the virtual sacred spaces and some of the youth ministers have suggested doing livestreaming of the chapel because that’s such an important place to the teens who have been here on retreat,” she said.

In the meantime, staff members are keeping abreast of the situation and won’t reopen until it is safe for everyone.

The situation of Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington was different still. When COVID-19 shut things down, staff already had plans to close for a major renovation of the 100-year-old main part of the retreat center.

“We had planned to shut down from April to August of 2020. That decision was made back in 2018,” said Erin Maiorca, the retreat house director.

The house closed a month early and began the renovations, which include updates to guest rooms.

“We’ll be able to open up again in September with new COVID policies in place,” Maiorca said, adding that they will keep numbers to 50% capacity, which is 37 retreatants.

Staff members are communicating with people planning retreats and sharing the guidelines retreatants will be expected to adhere to, such as wearing masks in all public spaces of the retreat house.

“We’ve been very upfront about adherence to those expectations,” she said. “If folks aren’t really comfortable adhering to those expectations, then maybe now isn’t a good time to participate in a retreat.”

During the fall months, people can take advantage of the extensive grounds at Bellarmine, which is another way people can stay safe while on retreat.

“A retreat experience is pretty visceral. It does engage all of our senses, and I think that’s one of the things a lot of us have missed over the last several months, that really deep spiritual experience,” she said. “We’re really excited to provide that for folks who are ready to come out of their home and be in sacred space, and really deeply connect with their loving God.”

Bellarmine Retreat House is also offering two virtual retreats in August and October and is looking at ways to offer more online spiritual events, such as days of reflection.


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