Soft-spoken and kind, the sisters of St. Mary’s Retreat offer the welcoming hand they have been known for since 1960. And in today’s world of hustle, bustle and muscle, they are all a respite from economic worries, natural disasters and the myriad other woes mere mortals encounter.
It began with an idea of Major Superior Sister Joseph in 1958, and quietly continues each weekend from September into May. In what was originally intended as a girls’ summer camp, the 700 square-foot dairy barn adjacent to the nuns’ 1927 structure has gradually been transformed by the Oxford Dominican nuns into the retreat it is today.
It only took one gathering to inspire near year-round use of the property, and that now extends for multiple groups and mixed gatherings.
“We have people coming from all over Michigan and beyond, including as far away as California, Canada, Pennsylvania and Ohio,” said Sister Audrey Rash, former director of the house. “We also have interdenominational groups, and both men and women can evangelize together. The Holy Spirit knows no bounds.”
Retreats typically begin with check in at 7 p.m. on Fridays, followed by orientation at 8:00. The weekend concludes following Sunday’s midday meal at about 1 p.m. With September’s retreats, costs rose to $165, with a nonrefundable deposit followed by the balance due on arrival. Late registrations – those made within the last two weeks before a scheduled retreat – have an additional $10 charge tacked on.
Those taking part are encouraged to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, with any weather-appropriate apparel if planning to walk outdoors. Any medical or dietary needs should be mentioned at the time of registration, and all guests must be able to climb stairs or be otherwise ambulatory.
One annual gathering centers on quilting, and Sister Audrey recounts the time seven quilters over one weekend made five complete quilts, which were then donated to a home for unwed mothers. This year, an October 21st date has been set for “Quilting the Women of the Bible.”
Each season, a theme is selected, and the 2011/2012 one deals with finding the right recipe for enlightenment. Tables in the dining room are set with cookbooks and flower-filled mugs to keep that idea in mind, as numerous programs will be focused on it.
Three floors of simply furnished rooms can accommodate 59 women, with group restrooms and showers, as well as a group dining room and designated craft, music and reading areas. Each room has a twin bed, sink and writing desk with chair – and Bible – and may just as easily house an exhausted mom as a bereft career woman.
“The rooms are typical nun cells,” said current house director, Sister Rita Birzer. “It’s up to the people using them as to how they spend their time, but this is essentially a quiet house. People can also sleep, read, relax without being disturbed. And, along with our group activities, they have the opportunity to know God’s unconditional love in the process.”
Sister Audrey recalls how some retreat participants merely stay in their rooms; their meals are subsequently quietly left outside their doors. One retreat guest slept the entire weekend, she says, never leaving her room except for bathroom breaks. Some arrive in slippers, some bring books or devotional items, and all have access to enveloping hugs of the cozy rooms as well as welcoming handmade afghans offered at St. Mary’s.
Women arrive for the entire weekend, part of the time or a day, and span all races, faiths and ages. Some are multi-generational, spurring the annual popularity of the Mother & Daughter teas. Guests are served on silver tea service and have a photo memory provided.
Sister Rita, who assumed directorship duties in early August, traveled from Tucson’s House of Prayer in Arizona. A 2009 merger between the Dominican communities and Dominican Sisters of Peace brought her east to explore the adventure that overseeing St. Mary’s will bring. She thinks that the surrounding grounds – complete with beehives, deer and groundhogs – will be a way to do that.
Recent changes include a makeover of the house gift shop, which offers the nuns’ handmade soaps, fabrics made by a mission in Mexico, and imaginative items crafted from vintage silverware, among many other items.
Pews in the chapel, geared to comfort during worship, have padded seats, additional pillows and afghans.
Programs are geared to entertain as well as divinely guide. One such program featured St. Mary’s Girl Friday, Kim Maul, who dressed as Sister Quizzanica, the quintessential nun of yesteryear. She answered ongoing questions and provided tongue-in-cheek entertainment to the delight of her audience.
Humor is an important part of the retreat experience, as is the ability to savor peace.
“There’s a greater need than there’s ever been,” said Sister Audrey. “Lives are so busy; there is no quiet time to reflect and get out of the ordinary into a space with no distractions.”
The retreat gratefully accepts donations as well as generously shares rosaries and inspirational books through its spiritual lending library. It sells gift certificates, and extends an invitation to volunteers for every area, from gardening, library and gift-shop hours to fundraising and organizing events. Maintenance help and utility donations are also welcome, as are chapel vestments, altar linens and sacred vessels.
“Books (that) are checked out may be returned the following year at your next retreat experience,” says St. Mary’s website.
Among the items needed at St. Mary’s are:
- Blank cards for prayer partners
- 3 5/8 x 6 1/2 white envelopes
- Clorox wipes
- Houseplants and ceramic pots
- Fingernail brushes, mini shampoos/conditioners, lotions and soaps
- Bird seed
- Flashlights and flashlight batteries (size D)
- Classical music CDs or dollars for downloads
- Playtex dishwashing gloves (medium & large)
- Oven mitts & aprons
- Peat moss, black dirt and gardening gloves
- Flavored teas (regular and decaffeinated) and hot chocolate
- Social snacks such as chocolates, breads & trail mix
- Small and large pottery to house clay-pots plants
- Flavored and non-flavored Carnation dairy creamers
- Canned or bottled soda pop, regular and diet
- Copy paper (20 lb.)
- 4 x 6 index cards
- Ink cartridges for Dell 924 inkjet printer
- 1-inch mailing dots
- Night lights
- Paper towels
- Puffs tissues
- Hypoallergenic mattress covers for twin beds, pillows, blankets
When shopping at Meijer’s, share the number 659996 to earn money for the Retreat. Applebee’s also provides a coupon for Friday retreat meals, and a partnership with Project12Baskets earns donors tax deductions in exchange for gently-used items of value. See www.project12baskets.com for details.
St. Mary’s Retreat House is at 775 W. Drahner in Oxford, and can be reached at (248) 628-3894 or email@example.com. St. Mary’s website is www.stmarysretreathouse.org and the Dominican Sisters of Peace website is www.oppeace.org.