Guiding people to God is the goal at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in Arbor Vitae, a ministry of the La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
The retreat center has been operating in the Diocese of Superior for 29 years. Even as COVID-19 curtailed many of their in-person group activities in 2020, Marywood’s four lakeside cabins filled with guests eager to retreat from city life. The sisters hired a Lutheran minister to expand the center’s ecumenical appeal, and with the new emphasis on remote programming, the five spiritual directors on staff have connected with people from coast to coast and beyond.
Dominican Sr. Elizabeth Amman is the director at Marywood. Other spiritual directors on staff include Sr. Mary Ellen Green, also a Dominican and development director, and Sr. Marla Lang, one of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who first saw the potential in the Trout Lake site decades ago. Pat Pintens, a retreat leader and spiritual director, has a long history of working in the diocese, and the Rev. Grant Van Lishout, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, brings an ecumenical angle and men’s ministry to the center.
Sr. Meg Earsley, an FSPA apostolic novice, is also currently stationed at Marywood. Scheduled to spend a year abroad sampling different ministries, Sr. Meg’s plans were skewed by COVID, so she ended up in Arbor Vitae, where she gives retreats and helps with IT, among other things. Rounding out the center staff is office manager Susan Fredenhagen, and they also host guests, including FSPA Sr. Karen Kappell, an artist, who lead retreats.
Leaving Marywood recently to return to St. Rose Convent in La Crosse was FSPA Sr. Anita Beskar, who spent 12 years in Arbor Vitae. In a visit with the Catholic Herald on Jan. 25, the Marywood staff spoke of her many contributions – including baking bread for cabin residents – and emphasized how much she will be missed.
In a typical year, Marywood hosts daytime and overnight retreats, hosts events, rents cabins and offers spiritual direction to individuals and small groups. Given the limitations of social distancing and quarantine, the sisters, Pintens and Van Lishout have turned to online video conferencing to facilitate their outreach.
“I love doing the spiritual direction,” said Van Lishout, who also helps with IT issues and conducts a men’s Bible study. He said he’s always been drawn to places like Marywood because of the tradition of hospitality; after meeting the sisters for the first time, he remembers going home to his wife and telling her, “They’re too nice.”
Sr. Meg, who spent 27 years working in IT before joining the Franciscans, has also received a warm welcome. “My intent here is just to help them in any way I can,” she explained. Everybody at Marywood “is so good to me,” she added.
Being on the giving side of a retreat has also showed Sr. Meg how they affect retreatants’ lives; although she hasn’t been able to travel in 2020, making contact with people from Africa and Europe through Marywood’s ministry has been “fascinating and exciting.”
Even as Marywood broadened their base in 2020, the pandemic presented some challenges, Pintens observed. Although the center has always offered outdoor retreats – and such solitary activities as staying in a cabin and kayaking could continue during quarantine – many of Marywood’s programs took place indoors. The staff had to reframe their offerings – reflecting more on nature and creation, how to “see God in life,” in Van Lishout’s words – and find ways to do more outdoors.
Marywood’s location on the shores of Trout Lake is, they say, perfectly suited to this endeavor.
“There’s so much around us that brings God’s goodness into the light,” said Sr. Marla, who is mostly retired but continues to offer spiritual direction and a monthly retreat. “It’s been a wonderful place for my ministry.”
“People say it’s like holy ground,” added Fredenhagen, who is Unitarian. Being in the gardens or sitting by the lake gives people “a deep, spiritual feeling,” she added.
“We are lucky to be here,” Sr. Elizabeth said.
Unfortunately, the pandemic meant Marywood’s guests couldn’t always be onsite this year; the Women’s Christmas event, which typically takes place over three days and draws 30 to 35 women per day, usually involves luminaries in the snow, wine and hors d’oeuvres by candlelight, a meal served in courses and a program.
This year’s event was free and conducted via Zoom, but the sisters said the evening retained its nourishing and luxurious feel. The program was an opportunity for women to talk about the gifts and challenges of 2020 and take time to process their experiences. They were also able to invite anyone – family, friends, colleagues – to join.
“I have to say, it turned out really well,” Sr. Mary Ellen commented. Women “from all over” who had never heard of Marywood were drawn into their outreach, and more than 70 attended.
“Women responded very positively,” Pintens reported.
For the staff, the success of the event, the word-of-mouth advertising and the center’s thriving outreach are all attributable to God.
They have “lots of awareness of the goodness of God,” said Sr. Elizabeth.
“It’s a God thing,” Sr. Mary Ellen echoed.
Moving forward, the staff plans to continue offering retreats both online and at Marywood. They’ll keep reaching out to give support and spiritual guidance via Zoom, and they hope to travel to more churches to conduct retreats as the danger of COVID slowly recedes and parishes return to in-person ministry.
There’s great need for support right now; for many, 2020 was a hard year. As she discerns her role as a spiritual advisor in 2021, Sr. Marla keeps coming back to one word: trauma.
Sr. Elizabeth, too, has heard many people struggling with the challenge of “finding God in everyday life,” coping with the difficulties wrought by the pandemic and “feeling low.”
Van Lishout said many people are questioning the goodness of God right now, and Pintens talks with people who are searching for meaning following traumatic changes in their lives.
For those in need of spiritual nourishment, Marywood offers a supportive environment, encouragement and accompaniment. To learn more, visit marywoodsc.org or call 715-385-3750.
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