Retreat center in renaissance of serving youth

| April 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

On a warm spring afternoon, Nancy Russ sat on a bench, gazing out over the small, tree-lined lake on the grounds of the Dunrovin Christian Brothers Retreat Center near Marine on St. Croix. The only sounds were honking geese and branches rustled by a gentle breeze. A parishioner of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, Russ, 72, said she has been coming to Dunrovin for 18 years and always feels a sense of peace there.

StudentOnBridge“I like Dunrovin because it’s close to the cities, and it’s far enough away that you can really be immersed in that meditative state,” said Russ, a hospice nurse participating in a four-day seminar for Healing Touch practitioners.

For five decades, the 52-acre retreat center has hosted thousands of retreats for youth, parishes and other groups and individuals. Although it still offers many retreats for adults, the center is refocusing on its original, Lasallian youth-focused mission. Last year, the center saw the largest number of retreats in 25 years and hosted 2,768 people, most of whom were youth.

“We have a lot of people come through our doors, but our heart is with the youth,” said Jerome Meeds, Dunrovin’s executive director. “We were founded as a youth retreat center.”

On nearly every weekend during the year and on summer weekdays, middle school and high school-aged youth attend retreats at Dunrovin. Sometimes Meeds facilitates; other times, he’s simply a host for youth groups with their own program. Many come for confirmation retreats.

Just a few years ago, two-thirds of Dunrovin’s guests were adults. Now, about two-thirds are youth. Meeds and his staff have made a concerted effort to grow the center’s youth programs by adding summer camps and strengthening programing.

Meeds “has been creating the environment that has opened up a willingness to come out here, and that’s one of those word-of-mouth [efforts],” said Jim Noon, Dunrovin’s business administrator.

lifejacketsRetreats are essential for Catholic youth, Meeds said, because they’re designed to “spark” a person’s faith. They reach a young person in the way Catholic education and catechism classes often can’t, he added.

That spark “happens more naturally when you’re on retreat, when you back away from the pressures of the world,” he said. “You’re backing away from the noise of the city . . . getting them unplugged so they can hear the voice of God, to experience his love, his mercy.”

In 2014, Dunrovin hosted groups ranging from St. Paul’s Outreach and Cretin-Derham Hall High School to St. Peter in North St. Paul and St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park.

In addition to retreats, Dunrovin hosts leadership training for youth, including the Dunrovin Leadership Institute Training Experience, or DLITE. Forty participated in 2014.

Teresa Kostohris was a participant in DLITE’s first year in 2009 and now manages the program on the Dunrovin staff.

Being part of DLITE taught her how to apply her faith to evangelization and service, she said. Meeds’ training gave her confidence.

StudentsHoldHandsgroup“With these kids, they’ve been preached at a lot, and that’s what we do. Our mission is to love them,” she said. “God really showed me that week the profound way he uses me.”

Kostohris, a parishioner of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, calls Dunrovin “a huge part” of her conversion, and said every summer she’s worked there has been a way to “get back to the basics” of faith and renew her trust in God.

DLITE participants work at Dunrovin with inner-city youth from the Twin Cities and San Miguel School, a Christian Brothers middle school in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. San Miguel sends students to Dunrovin every summer for a five or six-day camp.

“Dunrovin is the highlight of my year so far,” a San Miguel student said in a 2013 video on YouTube. “When you step off the bus, you know it’s going to be a great week.”

Dunrovin’s camp program “stretches and challenges” youth, Meeds said.

“What I’m finding is that young people want to be challenged,” he said.

Trust walks, where blindfolded participants must let a partner guide them, have been part of Dunrovin retreat activities.  Courtesy Dunrovin

Trust walks, where blindfolded participants must let a partner guide them, have been part of Dunrovin retreat activities.
Courtesy Dunrovin

Meeds plans to launch a retreat team this fall to help with high school programs and to host programs at local schools and parishes.

“My concern is that young people are leaving the Church in droves,” he said. “They get confirmed, and then that’s it. My philosophy is that we need to do something different. If same-old, same-old isn’t working, we need to change it up. Our style of retreat is very unique.”

Some parents and Church leaders tell Dunrovin leaders that the retreats have made a difference in how their youth act at home, Meeds said.

“That’s how you know you’re making a real impact,” he said.

Meeds is the retreat center’s first director who is not a Christian Brother. When he joined the staff 16 years ago, a few Christian Brothers still lived and worked at the center. None do today, although Dunrovin continues as an official ministry of the Midwest District of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, based in
St. Louis.

“Hospitality is our strong suit,” he said. “It’s an underlying charism of Christian Brothers. . . . If you meet a Christian Brother, he’s hospitable.”

He added: “When people come here, we love them as Christ would love them. We give them a great place to stay, good food, and probably most importantly, a warm welcome.”

That hospitality extends beyond Catholics to Protestant and Jewish retreat groups. Some have been coming for 35 years, Meeds said.

Christian Brother Bill Clarey, Dunrovin’s director from 1966 to 1969, said he implemented his background in teaching and counseling with retreat activities.

While there, he shifted the prevalent retreat structure from silence and lectures to conversation and introspective activities, and made the center available for retreats for some of the all-girls Catholic schools. Religion teachers often accompanied the students, and school chaplains would hear confessions and offer Mass.

While working at Dunrovin, Brother Bill recognized the need for teen drug addiction counseling in the Twin Cities, and, after leaving, he began a center for drug addicts on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Now retired after working in the counseling program faculty at the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Brother Bill, 75, returned to Dunrovin as a board member.

Even after 50 years, he still admires the center and its grounds for its beauty.

“I just hoped the kids wouldn’t say, ‘I’m glad this is over.’ And it was the opposite. You could tell,” Brother Bill said of his time as director. “I don’t know if there was ever a bad retreat.”

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