July 8, 2016

Mount St. Francis Center for Spirituality: 40 years of rebuilding the Church ‘one person at a time’

The church at Mount St. Francis Center for Spirituality connects two buildings used for retreats at the Conventual Franciscan-operated center near Floyds Knobs in southern Indiana.  (Photos by Natalie Hoefer)

The church at Mount St. Francis Center for Spirituality connects two buildings used for retreats at the Conventual Franciscan-operated center near Floyds Knobs in southern Indiana. (Photos by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

MOUNT ST. FRANCIS—On I-65 a few miles north of Louisville, traffic speeds along, or worse, creeps forward in the frustrating stop-and-go of too many people in too much of a hurry.

Drive five miles west to Mount St. Francis Center for Spirituality, and the frantic pulse from the highway experience ebbs and subsides altogether.

It is a perfect analogy for what the retreat center has been doing for 40 years, as stated in its motto: providing a place “So That All Who Seek May Find,” particularly peace and spirituality in a faster and faster-paced world.

“All of this 400 [plus] acres, all of these buildings are geared toward providing that experience, an experience of the beauty of the Lord,” says Conventual Franciscan Brother Robert “Bob” Baxter, director of the Mount St. Francis Center for Spirituality, located in Mount St. Francis near Floyds Knobs.

“[People] are looking for community, encounters with the living Jesus, and that’s what a retreat helps a person do.”

From high school retreats to marriage encounter weekends, private retreats or just walking through the wooded acres, people have sought the refuge of Mount St. Francis to grow closer to God since 1976.

‘Addressing what the local Church needs’

It all started around 1885, when actress Mary Anderson donated more than 400 acres of wooded land to her uncle, who was a Conventual Franciscan.

For decades, the Conventual Franciscan friars ran a high school seminary on the property. When the high school closed in 1976, the 1923 building was turned into a retreat center. The building now also serves as the headquarters for New Albany Deanery Catholic Youth Ministries.

“Last year, I think we had 2,500 high school kids here, and maybe 2,000 adults,” says Brother Bob. “It’s an extraordinarily busy place because people really are looking for a spiritual experience of the faith.”

The longest-standing retreats at “the Mount,” as it has come to be known, are three-day renewal retreats, particularly the Christian Awakening retreat for high school students and the Cursillo experience for adults.

“From September to the end of April, we usually have two high school retreats going on at a time every single week,” notes Brother Bob.

But three-day renewal retreats are just a part of the spiritual offerings on the wooded refuge just north of the Ohio River.

“Because of changing family situations and the whole changing dynamic of society, a lot of groups like to come in Friday night after supper and leave Saturday afternoon so they still have part of the weekend free,” Brother Bob explains.

“The other thing that’s changed is that years ago, the friars used to pick a theme they did retreats on that year. We don’t do that now. We meet with local groups, like a parish men’s group, and we’ll plan what they want. That way you’re addressing what the local Church needs.

“What has also significantly changed is the number of men’s retreats. Ten years ago there was one [a year], now there are four or five.”

In the two-story, six-bedroom Loftus House, a former convent on the campus built in 1926, smaller groups can hold private retreats.

Or for real solitude, try the Hermitage, a one-room cabin secreted away on a small bay at the far end of a lake on the property.

Even artists benefit from the amenities of Mount St. Francis, where two barns have been converted into artist studios.

“We offer pottery classes for people to come learn how to do that,” says Brother Bob. “[Art] is another great way for people to express their spirituality.”

Whatever the retreat may be, he says, “It’s not a workshop—it’s an experience.”

‘A very quiet, peaceful place’

Getting away from the busyness of life does not have to mean participating in a retreat, notes Brother Bob.

“We have First Fridays,” he says. “People come to 11:45 [a.m.] Mass, which is our daily Mass, and then they stay for lunch. We have the novena to the Sacred Heart after, and then a little 10-minute talk on the topic for that month. We get 30 plus people at that, sometimes 50. We do it all year round.”

Brother Bob also offers “Mondays on the Mount,” a Bible study session participants can choose to attend in the morning or in the evening.

“What we do here are the Sunday readings rather than a book of the Bible,” he explains. “The liturgy is what gives life. There you have the Scripture and the Eucharist. So on Monday we read the [upcoming Sunday’s] reading, give a very little bit of history, then ask what is the Lord telling you, how does the Scripture speak to you.

“When you go to Mass, it gives much more richness.”

Ann Moore, a member of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville, attends the Mondays on the Mount studies.

“I learn a lot,” she says. “I don’t feel like I ever knew the Bible the way I should. And Brother Bob is really good—he’s very witty.”

For those just seeking quiet—or exercise—trails loop among the trees and around Mt. St. Francis Lake. Mount St. Francis Sanctuary, a separate non-profit, owns and maintains the nearly 400 acres of trails, fields, the lake and several shrines.

“People come walk with their kids,” says Brother Bob. “They walk their dogs. They run. They sit by the lake. A lot of people come and enjoy the land. But even with all those people, it’s still a very quiet, peaceful place.”

‘40 is a biblical, significant number’

Rather than wait another 10 years to celebrate the spirituality center’s works, says Brother Bob, “we decided to celebrate 40 years because there seems to be a growing interest in retreats.

“I think the need people experience to retreat—to back up and re-orient and reconnect and reboot—is just powerful. That’s what we’re celebrating.

“And 40 is a biblical number, a very significant number.”

To start the year of celebration, people who had any connection with the Mount in the past 40 years were invited to come back to visit in February and take pictures of the places meaningful to them.

On Divine Mercy Sunday, the Mount offered its first “Coffee’s On, Door’s Open” event.

“It was a time where people could come who had a question about the Church, or they wanted some information about the Church, or they wanted to complain—whatever,” Brother Bob explains. “We just said, ‘The coffee is on. The friars are here. Come on over and let’s talk.’ It was just that informal.

“It was amazing. The only thing we needed more of was friars. We’re doing it again next year—that’s just going to be our form of Divine Mercy.”

In June, an “Experience of Kentuckiana” festival was held to celebrate the tastes and art of the southern Indiana-northern Kentucky region.

Brother Bob is particularly excited about the next celebratory event, which will occur on July 9.

Called “Live the 4th,” the event invites anyone who has ever attended a Christian Awakening retreat or Cursillo at the Mount. The name of the event points to the call of the three-day retreat participants to live the rest of their lives as if it were the fourth day of their renewal retreat.

“We’ll have a talk on obstacles to living the fourth,” says Brother Bob.

After small group discussion, he says, participants will “have time to just go out and sit, and write a letter to yourself on what you’ve been dealing with since your retreat, and how you hope your next year goes in this recommitment.”

The last anniversary event will be a bonfire and hayride on Oct. 1, close to St. Francis’ feast day on Oct. 4.

“We’re looking forward to the next 40 years,” says Brother Bob. “There’s no time to rest.”

Rebuilding the Church ‘one person at a time’

Conventual Father James “Jim” Kent is provincial of the Conventual Franciscans of Our Lady of Consolation Province, centered at Mount St. Francis but including friars throughout the United States. He says Brother Bob “does what he does exceedingly well.

“[He] is a really gifted teacher and educator. He’s taught high school many years, he was DRE [director of religious education] at St. Michael the Archangel [Parish] in Indianapolis. He’s very knowledgeable, but he also brings a lot of life and a lot of humor to his topics.”

Such an approach can be disarming, a trait that Father Jim and Brother Bob see as an unspoken attribute of St. Francis and of Franciscans.

“There’s something internationally about St. Francis that people connect with,” says Father Jim. “There’s something very welcoming and non-threatening about St. Francis.”

Brother Bob sees that connection extend to the Franciscan friars.

“I think people, no matter what they think about the Church, they like friars. It’s a softer, warmer thing for whatever reason in their minds.”

Both men also see Pope Francis’ popularity as having an effect on the Conventual Franciscan-operated retreat center.

“I think people feel a personal connection to Pope Francis, and they feel a personal connection to St. Francis, which is kind of a magnet for people to come to the Mount,” says Father Jim.

Brother Bob agrees.

“[Pope Francis] brings people home, and welcomes them and walks with them. That’s what St. Francis did, and that’s what we try to do, and I think we do it well. It’s a privilege to do what we do. We were given the land, and we have really consciously tried to figure out ways to give it back.

“Our mission as Franciscans is to rebuild the Church, and we do it one person at a time.”

(For more information on Mount St. Francis Center for Spirituality, log on to mountsaintfrancis.org.)

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