Ursulines bid farewell to Villa Maria retreat center near Lake Pepin

| June 17, 2016 | 0 Comments
Marian Hall, the main building at Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center, which the Ursuline Sisters are selling after having the Old Frontenac property for more than a century. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Marian Hall, the main building at Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center, which the Ursuline Sisters are selling after owning the Old Frontenac property since 1885. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Thousands of people have taken the scenic drive southeast of the Twin Cities on Highway 61 on their way to bluff country in Goodhue County.

Their destination was Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center in Old Frontenac, nestled in a wooded area overlooking Lake Pepin 12 miles south of Red Wing. For more than four decades, the site has hosted retreats and conferences for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, with 180 retreats taking place there in 2015.

The center’s iconic medieval-looking main building, Marian Hall, has become familiar to the 5,000 annual visitors, half of whom are repeat retreat attendees.

As palpable as the serenity is for those who pull up the driveway into the 70-acre grounds, is the sense of sadness over its impending closure. The Ursuline Sisters, who initially received the land in 1885 from General Israel Garrard of Kentucky, decided this year to close the retreat center and sell the buildings and property.

This historic aerial view shows the classroom building of Villa Maria Academy, left, and Marian Hall. The classroom building burned down in 1969, and Marian Hall still stands today. Courtesy Villa Maria

This historic aerial view shows the classroom building of Villa Maria Academy, left, and Marian Hall. The classroom building burned down in 1969, and Marian Hall still stands today. Courtesy Villa Maria

The last Ursuline serving the center left in 2009. The absence of sisters at Villa Maria and its distance from the order’s provincial office in St. Louis were key factors in the province leadership team’s decision to close and sell Villa Maria, according to Susan Whelan, the Ursulines’ communications and development director. A farewell event is scheduled for June 24-26, coinciding with the final retreat there under the Ursuline sisters’ watch.

“This has been a special place for a lot of people,” said executive director Sarah McClellan, who visited the retreat center when she was a teenager and came back to work there four years ago. “[Some] people have been coming here for retreats for upwards of 40 years. It’s a pretty sad situation for a lot of people. A lot of the alums consider it their home. There’s a lot of sadness about the closing, a lot of people will miss it.”

Among them is Kevin Sampers, 55, who first came for a family retreat in the early 1990s while a member of St. Thomas Becket in Eagan. After going on several family retreats, he learned it offered a men’s retreat. He said about 100 men have attended the retreats over the years. His last retreat was in November 2015.

“It’s just a very spiritual place,” he said. “You walk in and you feel like all the burdens of your life just dissolve away and you’re able to spend time reflecting on your life in a very non-judgmental environment.”

He said coming together with other men was particularly meaningful.

“Men don’t typically don’t have an outlet to share their faith with one another, and their life struggles,” Sampers said. “From that first retreat, it really showed me that men, as quiet as they are, are often dealing with the same issues in life and struggling with their own spirituality. To get down there and talk to other men in a truly spiritual sense really rejuvenates you to go back into the world and say, ‘Hey, everybody is struggling with these things. And, with your faith, you can actually get through them.’”

Longtime school

Women, likewise, have been impacted by Villa Maria, but in a more unique way. From 1891-1969, the Ursuline sisters ran Villa Maria Academy, a high school for girls, on the property. The thriving school that drew both day students and boarders closed abruptly after a fire caused by a lightning strike burned down the three-story classroom building on March 20, 1969.

A cemetery where Ursuline Sisters are buried sits on the Villa Maria property. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A cemetery where Ursuline Sisters are buried sits on the Villa Maria property. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Rosemary Meiman was principal during the tragedy and expressed vivid memories of that day.

“It happened very early in the morning, like 4 o’clock,” said Sister Rosemary, now in her 80s and living in New Orleans. “A very loud clap of thunder awakened me, just bolted me up in my bed. I didn’t know what happened.”

Soon, she found herself helping staff and students trying to rescue important items from the building. But, they were only able to get as far as the second floor. She recalls going through a tunnel between the classroom building and the residence building to pull out furniture and books. Water from the swimming pool was used by two local fire departments to try and put out the blaze, and a man driving by in a milk truck got water to help fight the fire.

After the fire, the sisters converted parts of the residence building into classrooms to finish out the school year, then closed the school for good.

Sister Rosemary left after the school year, but has not forgotten neither the decade she served there nor the beauty of the place.

“What made it so wonderful? I think the loving atmosphere that the sisters created at the very beginning, the closeness,” she said. “It was like the girls had a home away from home. It was really their home for most of the year. That’s why [several alumnae] are still having a luncheon every May or June.”

‘Need in our world for places like this’

One alumna went on to become an Ursuline Sister and teach at Villa Maria Academy. Sister Miriam Patricia Faricy went to school there with her younger sister, Elizabeth Schneider, and graduated in 1948. She joined the Ursulines in 1949 and taught at the school from 1963-65.

“It was a very happy time for me,” said Sister Miriam, 85, who grew up in Prior Lake. “I had grown up out in the country and [Villa Maria] was out in the country. I liked it very much.”

She added: “We just had an alumnae luncheon a few weeks ago in Miesville, and it was just amazing the loyalty of the alumnae, and for many of them their happiness in being able to have had the formation that we had at Villa Maria.”

Sister Miriam said she was both nervous and excited to come back and teach at the academy. It gave her a chance to help students the way the sisters had helped her.

“The bonds that are established between the sisters on the faculty and the students were very deep,” she said. “For those of us who really put our whole heart into being there, I think it was a wonderful experience.”

Sarah McClellan

Sarah McClellan

The property, with its 39,499-square-foot Marian Hall, has been on the market since April. Whelan said the provincial leaders “would like it to be used for the best possible purpose in keeping with Ursuline values and respecting all parties.” The sisters also are exploring options for the property’s cemetery, where dozens of sisters are buried.

McClellan is hoping whoever buys the property will continue to offer its beauty to both newcomers and those familiar with its treasures. She wants to see the legacy continue that is stated in its slogan: “Where God is Center and the World is Welcome.”

“I think there’s such a tremendous need in our world for places like this,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful property, it’s such a unique property. It’s just so peaceful and it has such a holy essence to it. I would love to see it turned into some kind of healing center. I think that would be a good continuation of the legacy that the sisters started.”

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