For religious and clergy, a spiritual respite in the North Woods

| Susan Klemond | March 6, 2019 | 0 Comments
The St. Francis Lodge retreat house includes a large house and an upper floor of a garage that can sleep up to eight people along Lake George, near Itasca State Park

The St. Francis Lodge retreat house includes a large house and an upper floor of a garage that can sleep up to eight people along Lake George, near Itasca State Park. COURTESY ST. FRANCIS LODGE

The first religious sisters Sal and Beth Di Leo invited to their new retreat center on a northern Minnesota lake in 2003 enjoyed a somewhat rustic getaway.

“We put a camper in up on the hill, and already that first year we had four nuns come from Illinois,” said Sal, 65. “There wasn’t one of them younger than 80.”

Since then, increasing numbers of religious, women discerning religious life and priests have stayed, free of charge, in what are now comfortable and picturesque accommodations designed primarily for them near Itasca State Park.

The former St. Charles Borromeo parishioners developed St. Francis Lodge to serve religious and clergy out of gratitude for the care their first visitors — the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate — had given Sal and three siblings at a Joliet, Illinois, orphanage in the 1960s.

“We are moved by God to do something to extend the kingdom of God here as laypeople, and that is to share the Gospel and to give support to those who are sharing the Gospel where they could have a place to rest,” said Sal, who learned in the orphanage that nuns and priests need time to recharge, too.

Located between Bemidji and Park Rapids on Lake George, the lodge consists of a large house and upper floor of a garage, which all together can sleep up to eight for group and individual retreats, along with a chapel, grotto and outdoor Stations of the Cross.

The couple moved to the site temporarily last year after selling their Minneapolis home. They plan to purchase a new home closer to the lodge this spring, Sal said.

The Di Leos bought the lodge property in 1999 following publication of Sal’s memoir about his orphanage experience entitled “Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?” A film based on the book is planned.

The grounds also include a chapel.

The grounds also include a chapel. COURTESY ST. FRANCIS LODGE

As their finances allowed, they gradually developed the land, completing the project in 2012.

“People ask me how we got this done, and I have to be honest with you, if you don’t believe in miracles, you’re not looking for them,” said Sal, a business consultant.

Besides the Joliet Franciscan community, sisters have come from the Twin Cities, Mankato and North Dakota, often staying a week. Priests visit from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and elsewhere. A Bemidji priest also hopes to host young men’s and women’s retreats. The Di Leos also occasionally invite others who are sick or are facing life challenges, Sal said.

The lodge is open year-round with two or three groups a month staying in the summer. The Di Leos serve breakfast if guests desire it, but they don’t present retreats, he said.

The couple doesn’t charge sisters and clergy because they consider the lodge a ministry rather than a business. Running it as a chartered mission instead of a nonprofit gives them more freedom, they said, adding that they may begin requesting a nominal donation.

The Di Leos are establishing a foundation to provide for sisters’ lodge-related travel expenses.

During August 2017, St. Charles Borromeo pastor Father Troy Pryzbilla stayed a week at St. Francis Lodge with three diocesan priest friends who prayed, fished and enjoyed bonfires. “We had nice camaraderie and prayer time,” he said. “Nice weather, too.”

Sister Karen Mohan and five other Visitation sisters from Minneapolis also relaxed and enjoyed nature at the lodge later that month without worrying if they could afford the weeklong trip, she said.

“This took us out of the ordinary way and gave us a little R-and-R (rest and relaxation) where we could enjoy beautiful Lake Itasca,” Sister Karen said, adding that the community might return for another stay.

Notes left in the couple’s guest book are their greatest reward, Sal said. ”When everybody comes, they feel they’ve been changed, they’ve been touched in a very profound way.”

As more guests come, the Di Leos may expand the lodge on adjacent property, Sal said. They’re also thinking about their own retirement. “We want the mission to continue at this little respite for God up here.”

When they envisioned the ministry 20 years ago, the Di Leos didn’t anticipate its growth. “It’s evolved by more use and greater reach because we do get inquiries from people from all around,” Sal said. “It’s touched a lot of lives.”

The couple feel they’ve received more than they’ve given, Sal said, noting that their faith and marriage have deepened, and friendships have developed.

Beth, 68, agreed: “I think we’ve both grown by giving our time and house to other people to use for quiet time. It’s been a great experience for us, and we’ve made a lot of very, very good friends through this mission.”

For more information about St. Francis Lodge, visit

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