I was appointed director of Christ’s Peace on December 1, 2011. In looking back over that decade, I am filled with gratitude and happy with what God has done for Christ’s Peace, our guests and all who have worked here.
In the beginning of my tenure, the challenge was how to change Shantivanam, the old name of the retreat center, into Christ’s Peace. When Fr Ed Hays began Shantivanam, it was formed to be a House of Prayer for the needs of the Archbishop and the Archdiocese, the Church and the world. Two biblical texts inspired the direction it followed, “Be still and know that I am God,” and “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” The emphasis on silence and contemplation walked hand in hand with a welcoming of people from all religious traditions. Part of that welcoming included looking at the Vatican II documents that spoke of there being a ray of truth in all the world’s religions. This expressed itself during the formal prayer periods with readings from the major world religions. I was on the staff in the early 90’s and can testify to the gentle, loving spirit that flowed through Shantivanam.
This approach was enriching for many people but lacked long-term sustainability. The papacy of St John Paul signaled the need for a change of direction when he called for the new evangelization of Christians. The director before me, Kristen Bexten, began the process of transforming Shantivanam into Christ’s Peace by removing non-Christian iconography from the chapel, main building and guest spaces. She also replaced any non-Christian readings in our chapel services with Catholic ones. The majority of people who supported Shantivanam did not like the changes and the new direction they foretold. They expressed their displeasure by no longer coming to the retreat center and sending their donations elsewhere. Kristen was director for only six months, but she started the necessary work to transform Christ’s Peace into what it is today.
My first concern as the new director was finding money for survival. Donations had dried up significantly and not that many guests were coming. The Archdiocese in those first few years was generous in giving us the finances we needed to stay open, along with a few sympathetic donors who did not abandon what Fr Ed started. Fr Ed told me once, after I asked him what he thought of the changes that were being made, “It’s still the same place, filled with the Holy Spirit. It just put on a Roman toga.”
With the help of the Board, it was time to strategize how to implement becoming an instrument for the new evangelization. We began by changing our look, continuing what Kristen began, to make clear our Catholic identity: crucifixes were put in all the guest and public spaces, the library was updated and now has a comprehensive collection of Catholic books and the chapel had pews with kneelers installed.
As we were changing our look, we also changed how we pray with our guests. The old chapel readings were replaced by the Liturgy of the Hours, and the fifteen minutes of silent prayer before the readings became three periods of Eucharistic Adoration holy hours before praying the Liturgy of the Hours.
An important aspect of my leadership is as a spiritual guide for our guests. Through the generosity of the Archdiocese, I was trained as a spiritual mentor through the Apostles of the Interior Life and the School of Faith. This ensures that when I am directing people and leading preached retreats, our guests can be confident in receiving reliable teachings and guidance. This training was the final step in getting us ready for receiving guests in our rebirth as Christ’s Peace.
It was time to get the message out. We hoped that some of the people who loved Shantivanam would come and experience Christ’s Peace, but there was little interest in that corner. The few who did come were disappointed and heartbroken. Outreach to the people of the Archdiocese was crucial. We had brochures made. I went out to about one third of the parishes in the Archdiocese, speaking after Masses and handing out brochures. Initially, it did not bring many people here, however there was value in getting the word out about Christ’s Peace. And ever so gradually, guests began to show up at our door and the donations began to grow. When I started, the donations were only 5K a year. We now see donations in the low 40K range.
Another helpful factor has been our developing a relationship with our local parish. There was never much of a connection to the local parish before this time. Our not having an on-site priest played a role in beginning a healthy relationship. Coming to Mass, alone or with some of our guests, helped make us known to the parish. Later, I volunteered to be a lector and extraordinary Eucharistic minister and helped at some of the parish fundraisers. Now we have a close relationship with our parish neighbors. It has been a true blessing.
In the early years of my being director, we were like a new-born colt unsteady on our feet. Now we are more like a frisky year-old dreaming of the Kentucky Derby. What happened? In my first years as director, the money was tight, most of what we received went into paying bills and patchwork maintenance. We had established a sturdy framework as a spiritual center with much value to offer guests. Though the numbers of guests were increasing, the growth was so gradual as to be worrisome. We were making do and getting by. This continued for a number of years.
An important moment came a few years after my speaking at so many parishes. A group called Teams of Our Lady from Seneca, Kansas came for a group retreat. Their retreat was a profound spiritual experience for them. They told other Teams about their experience and others, especially from Atchison, came for retreat and have continued this practice for many years now. Now five different Teams come for group retreats. Soon other groups, in addition to the people who came monthly to my preached retreats, found us. This has been an important factor in increasing guest numbers and revenue. This allows us to continue to serve the Lord by serving His people. An honor, a privilege, a great joy!
A key moment in who we are today occurred when Marie joined the staff four years ago. After years of getting by hand to mouth, we were beginning to resemble a flag that had been flown to shreds by too much exposure to nature’s strength. Marie’s gifts are complementary to my own. Her background in construction gave her an eye for seeing what needed to be done at a glance to restore and improve our buildings and grounds. As an example, in walking down the north hall of the main building, she saw all the old, unused office rooms and wanted to transform them into new guest rooms. Her vision and organizational skills worked together to effectively bring about many positive additions to Christ’s Peace: re-purposing old spaces, building new shrines, refurbishing most of the buildings. She developed a productive volunteer program and has received many needed donated materials from numerous companies.
The hard work of the past four years has led us into a growth period that began several months before the pandemic hit. I have been surprised, relieved and filled with gratitude to see that our guest numbers have increased as have our donations. This is not an accident. I believe the addition of Eucharistic Adoration as the core spiritual practice we follow has opened us to receive God’s grace more fully. The dry, weary land has been transformed into green-land. God has blessed us with institutional health and a rosy outlook for the future. All glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
And God bless all of you and your loved ones!
Director of Christ’s Peace House of Prayer
To learn more about Vince read the article The Leaven recently published highlighting our ministry through an interview with him called, “Retreat House Director Puts Old Skills To New Use”