Catholic woman creates retreat center, prepares to celebrate 25th year
What better place than the Holy Land to discern your next step in life?
That’s what Shirley Wanchena of St. Louis Park decided back in 1977, shortly after her husband, Victor, had died after a six-year battle with heart disease.
Newly widowed and with the youngest of her six children turning 18, she wondered what God had in store for her. At age 49, she figured there was plenty of time left to write a new chapter in her life.
One of her children was a missionary in Zambia along with his wife, and Wanchena chose to pay them a visit. On the way, she wanted to take some time for a retreat in Jerusalem to engage in some serious discernment.
Out of that 10-day journey to the desert was born a place that offers 1,000 people a year the same experience that she had. Her sense that God wanted to create a place where people could get away and spend time alone with him led to the creation of Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), a 240-acre wooded place of serenity just outside the northern border of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Isanti County.
Next month, Pacem will celebrate 25 years of existence. Its 16 one-person hermitages are open year round and offer silence and solitude to those who make them home for however many days they choose.
Discerning the future
But, such a place was not on her radar screen when she boarded a plane headed for Israel shortly after Victor died. In fact, her intent was to decide between four other possibilities that lay before her.
One option was a job offer to be a director of religious education, a position she had held while raising her children. Another was a position as a pastoral minister. Yet another was to go to Zambia and join her son and daughter-in-law as a missionary.
Finally, she had met a man who also was widowed and indicated that he wanted their relationship to get serious, even permanent.
She felt she could be happy with any one of the four possibilities, but agonized over which of them to choose. In Jerusalem, she saw a priest whom she had met earlier, Father Francis Martin, founder of The Word Among Us, a Catholic Scripture study guide with headquarters in Michigan.
He asked her a simple question, but one that pierced her heart: “How are you feeling?”
She quickly replied, “Fine.” But, he knew better.She had just lost her husband, and her nest was now empty. When he pressed her, she finally said that she had no idea. He then instructed her to go back and figure it out, then call him.
That simple question planted the seed for something deeper than she had ever imagined. She decided to take an eight-day Ignatian retreat at a center in Oshkosh, Wis., to sort things out.
The retreat master, Father Bill Wren, met with her daily to hear what was happening in the silence.
Turns out, nothing at all was happening. Finally, on the last day, exasperated and in tears, she confessed to Father Wren that she was no closer to knowing God’s will than when she had arrived.
The only sense she got was during her final meeting with him before going home. She felt God tell her that the next words of the priest would be the key.
“Father Bill was finishing, saying, ‘You know God will bless whatever you choose,’” said Shirley, now 85 and a convert to the Catholic Church who was baptized at age 19 and belongs to the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake. “‘But, I think what he’s asking you, Shirley, is would you give him a blank check?’”
“It took me seven months to sign that check,” she said. “Things kept surfacing that I didn’t want to do.”
Finally, she gave the complete surrender God was asking for. Soon after that, he gave her a directive, contained in a thought that popped into her mind: “Create an environment where my people can come and be alone with me.”
After accepting this message, she got right to work. With some background in real estate, she teamed up with her two sons, Jeff and Michael, and son-in-law Mark Croteau, who now works for the Cathedral of St. Paul, and started driving the outer reaches of the archdiocese looking for land.
They went south, east and west of her home in St. Louis Park, but found nothing affordable. Wanting something about an hour away from Minneapolis, they finally decided to head north.
Desiring a minimum of 40 acres, they found such a parcel on Highway 47 north of Anoka. They used money from a bonus Croteau had recently received, then took out a mortgage for the rest. Eventually, Wanchena sold her home and used it to help build the first three hermitages, plus a house for her to live in. She added to the original 40 acres over the years, and plans to build there more hermitages.
She vividly remembers the day she arrived to move in — and the clear confirmation of what this simple chunk of land had to offer. “The night I moved here was Oct. 16, 1987,” she said. “I had closed on our house and closed the door on our family home for the last time. I had my things in the car and took off up 47, tears rolling down my cheeks, tears of joy, happiness, excitement and sadness.”
She turned into the long, gravel driveway of Pacem, and instantly felt something different.
“It was a powerful sense, a presence,” she said. “It was like a wall of peace, and I drove into it and stopped the car. It was just a holy, holy presence. It was a peace beyond what I had ever known. . . . This is the gift of Pacem for all who can receive it.”
It is a calming presence, but also energizing. This divine spirit has captivated at least one retired priest.
Father Timothy Nolan, former pastor of St. Paul in Ham Lake who provided guidance to Wanchena when she started planning Pacem, now makes the retreat center his home. He moved there when he retired in 2005, but he is not slowing down.
“I’m busier than ever, but I’m doing the stuff I love to do for the Lord,” said Father Nolan, 74, who offers his services on site, but also goes to parishes to give retreats and spiritual direction. “There is no end to the stories about the living God, who meets them out there in the hermitage. They’re just all excited about it. And, they usually want to tell somebody.
“So, we get to hear a lot of their stories, which are usually so inspiring. As Shirley often says, these [stories] are our paychecks, when we hear what God is doing. It’s worth every little bit of effort it takes to do this.”
At least half of the 15,000 people who have come for a retreat since Pacem opened on May 1, 1988 make return visits, Wanchena said. And, in some cases, the connection with Pacem becomes deeper.
Barbara Koch first visited Pacem back in the early 1990s, when she was asked to drive a Visitation Sister there. Her two daughters had attended Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, so she had gotten to know the sisters.
Once there, Wanchena invited Koch to spend half a day in a hermitage. That led to annual visits for the next 20 years, plus a friendship with Wanchena that led Koch to join the board of directors — and finance the building of a larger main house and the final six hermitages in 2000.
“I went out to one of the retreat houses and God zapped me right off the bat [during the first visit],” said Koch, 82 and a member of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata. “It was just a wonderful occasion for me to sit.
“This is a wonderful place to get your spiritual mind, heart and soul revitalized. That’s the way I saw Pacem — as a place that you could get away and stop your busyness in life and say, ‘OK, God, what do you have for me? What do you want me to do?’ And, learn how to pray with just you and God in that room together out in the woods.”
How to encounter God in the silence
Retreats at Pacem in Terris are designed for simplicity and a singular purpose — encountering God in the silence and solitude of the woods.
The 240-acre center north of Anoka on Highway 47 contains 16 small hermitages featuring one room and a porch. They have no electricity or running water, and meals are dropped off daily, or people can come to the main house for dinner. There also are three rooms in the main house for those who have special needs, or need electricity and/or running water.
According to founder Shirley Wanchena, who gives each person a brief orientation before his or her retreat, the experience involves five components:
- Holy rest;
- Praying the Scriptures;
- Writing a letter to God;
- Walking the wooded trails; and
- Sitting in a rocking chair to ponder the experience and talk to God.
Other than the short meeting with Wanchena, no other spiritual direction is provided, so the person can focus exclusively on an encounter with God.
“We recommend at least two nights so that you can have what we call a ‘desert day,’ where you wake up and go to bed in the hermitage,” Wanchena said. “And, there’s no place you have to go, nothing you have to do, and you can choose not to look at a clock. It’s freedom. And, the gift of the hermitage is the freedom to be able to enter into that environment and be more fully attentive to the presence of God.”
There is no cost to make a retreat, but the suggested donation is $90 a day to cover expenses. The center is open year round, except three days around Christmas, the Easter Triduum and two weeks for maintenance in July.
For more information about Pacem in Terris and/or to schedule a retreat, visit http://www.paceminterris.org or call (763) 444-6408.
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