Fr. Eric Nielsen, pastor of St. Paul’s University Center at UW-Madison, preaches a retreat to mothers of young children, encouraging them to cultivate Christian culture in their homes. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Editor’s note: St. Anthony Spirituality Center invited reporter Jenny Snarski to participate in a Jan. 18-21 retreat at its Marathon facility. This is a first-person account of her experience.

The word retreat has multiple meanings: withdrawal in the face of opposition; a safe, quiet or secluded place; and a period of retirement or seclusion, especially for spiritual renewal.

Stepping out of my car on a cool mid-January evening and gazing at the symmetrical brick façade of St. Anthony Spirituality Center in Marathon, I felt retreat meant a little of all of those definitions.

The initial motive of my visit was a Catholic Herald assignment. Scanning parish bulletins, I came across the Retreat for Mothers with Fr. Eric Nielsen at St. Anthony. Though Marathon is located in the Diocese of La Crosse, the center is less than an hour from the southeast reaches of the Diocese of Superior.

I contacted the retreat center to see if someone from our diocese might be attending. Before I knew it, with a generous offer from communications director Cheryl Mathis and the retreat master’s prayers, I became that person. This is my story.

After a two-and-a-half hour drive from Spooner – and thanks to my wonderful husband and mother-in-law – I did feel safe from the oppositions and attacks we all experience in daily life. I was in a quiet, secluded place and ready for spiritual renewal.

From conversations, I gathered many of my fellow participants knew each other, and Fr. Eric Nielsen was a highly respected and sought-after priest. The pastor of St. Paul’s University Center at UW-Madison since 2006, he had known some of the women or their husbands as students, celebrated their marriages and baptized their children. Others were surprised that more women hadn’t taken advantage of the chance to spend a weekend listening to his wisdom on marriage, family life and spirituality.

Discolored floors of the original cloister corridors at St. Anthony’s Spirituality Center in Marathon give witness to the thousands of people who have experienced the presence of God in this sacred place. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Our retreat host, Marie, greeted the group of two dozen and made warmly apparent the hospitality that characterizes the Franciscan house. As I learned later, this spirit and so much of the center’s general atmosphere comes from the 50 to 60 monthly volunteers, most of whom have experienced the fruits of retreat firsthand.

Almost exclusively from the Marathon area, the volunteers contribute efforts equivalent to six full-time employees. When the Capuchin Province announced in 2013 that it could not continue to staff the center, there was an enormous outpouring of support to carry forward its mission.

The welcome binder in each private, individually decorated room included a history of the building and the Capuchins who chose the 45-acre site near the Big Rib River 100 years ago.

Since the land acquisition in 1917, strong community support has been present. It was men from surrounding farms who helped excavate and lay the glacial-stone foundation. Many of these men were likely part of the first group of retreatants that, according to an archive photo, gathered in 1922.

Mathis, who started working for the center in 2014, explained both sponsored and hosted events are offered. With a facility set up for simultaneous self-contained events, St. Anthony’s – already planning two years in advance – caters to corporate and religious groups of all faiths. Mathis shared how enriching this variety is and affirmed the general consensus that it is a “sacred place.”

A small group of residents made up of a priest, religious sisters and lay people in discernment offer hospitality to individuals wanting to retreat privately. Given the central location, visitors come to St. Anthony’s from the Milwaukee and Madison areas as well as all over central Wisconsin and the Twin Cities.

Just the two of us

Our Retreat for Mothers was in silence – beginning Thursday with night prayers led by two joy-filled nuns invited by Fr. Nielsen. They were Srs. Mary Thomas and Mary Alix, non-cloistered contemplative Sisters of Mary, Morning Star who live with their community in Monona.

The sweetness of their chanting voices, the solemn swishing of their full grey habit and the childlike simplicity with which they bowed down – head to the floor – helped create an immediate atmosphere of prayer in the simple chapel.

Friday’s first meditation challenged us mothers, a handful with nursing babies in arms, to spend the day quieting our minds and hearts. Quoting St. Josemaria Escriva, Fr. Nielsen said, “Silence is the doorkeeper of the interior life.”

The center of the retreat, he said, was our relationship with Christ. He asked us to close our eyes and imagine Jesus having personally invited us to spend this time with Him … and then to look around and wonder why other women had shown up.

During the meditations that followed, the priest iterated his love and appreciation for the esteemed vocation of mothers, clearly stemming from experience with his own mother. Sharing many anecdotes, Fr. Nielsen – who grew up in Oshkosh, the oldest of seven children – related the ups and downs of marriage and family life, constantly calling us to refocus on Christ and our relationship with “the one person in the world who really knows how to love us.”

With humor and tenderness, the preacher said, “My words are here hopefully to spark something to continue your own conversation with the Holy Spirit.” He spoke of priorities – the best gift a mother can give her children is to be in love with Jesus – and of pitfalls – the danger of comparisons which only offer two options, that of feeling better than or worse than those around us. He challenged growth in detachment – from ourselves, from our time, from our sleep; and encouraged a supernatural spirit to face the demands of motherhood – like his own priesthood, called to be Jesus for all we encounter.

Fr. Nielsen offered hope coupled with humanness, and God’s grace through the sacraments, encouraging us to make a good confession and take advantage of the opportunity for spiritual guidance with one of the sisters.
The reflective priest, who often spoke with his eyes closed – as if those present were listening in on his own conversation with God – claimed, “We underestimate God’s justice as much as we underestimate His mercy.”
With enthusiasm and great conviction, he preached on the essential importance of mental prayer and the necessary discipline to make time for it daily.

“Stay focused on the big things; let the little things go,” Fr. Nielsen expressed in various forms for much of the second day of the retreat.

He left seeds of wisdom to cultivate during the times for personal reflection: Be demanding, but patient with yourselves. Fill your homes with love, not things. Care for your husbands; don’t treat them like support staff. Take deep breaths. Remind yourself Jesus loves you and promised you heaven, so love your kids for who they are and don’t sweat the details.

To conclude the retreat, Fr. Nielsen praised St. Joseph as caretaker par excellence, noting that God chose him to protect and provide for the Holy Family. He urged us to invite St. Joseph to be “father and lord” of our own families, following the example of St. Teresa of Avila, who dedicated most of her monasteries to his patronage.

In Sunday’s homily, a parallel was drawn between our families and early monasteries as the place where Christian civilization was kept alive during the fall of the Roman Empire. The preacher entreated mothers to remember we are laying the foundational seedbeds for Christianity to flourish in the future.

If these walls could speak

There was an aura of transcendence and timelessness at St. Anthony’s. I sensed a prayerful presence hovering in the brightly arched corridors – hopes and desires, shadow and light, mystery and discovery, the past and the present.

I explored the building’s secluded corners and admired the snow-covered paths on the grounds outside. Stone grottoes house the Stations of the Cross on a winding path. Near a frozen pond, I noticed a row of stone finials lining a footbridge. I looked more closely; it appeared each had been individually built, stone by stone. I wondered about the hands who carefully, prayerfully built them and how many other searching souls had noticed them over the decades.

Later that day one of the residents – the delightful Sr. Jolynn Brehm, FSPA – blessed me with a private tour of the building and shared more of the center’s history.

The order and continuity of the building’s architecture is a seamless backdrop for the individual character of numerous breakout rooms. The former Capuchin classrooms have been repurposed as a library, meeting rooms and gathering spaces.

Spaces adapted in the 1980s include a pillow room designed as a comfortable learning space for young people, a fully functional art room for expression of prayer experiences and two massage therapy rooms on the upper level that offer the opportunity for a holistic body-spirit renewal.

The Franciscan sister, who was co-founder and director of the Marywood Spirituality Center in Arbor Vitae, pointed out abundant traces of Franciscan spirituality, including 68 sponsored solar panels installed last summer, and the handiwork of local Eagle Scouts who built bat boxes near the pond to keep “brother bats” out of the attic.

At every turn were examples of simplicity, hard work and resourcefulness – hand-carved and inlaid wood representations of the Seven Joys of Mary, and door latches instead of knobs, modeled after pasture gates.
A tour of the basement was like stepping back even further in time, to the early Capuchin period of the house. A barbershop doubled as the sandal-making room, complete with geared tools for cutting leather; a tool and woodworking shop indicating the friars made just about everything they needed by hand.

One of the most stirring accounts, told to me by both Mathis and Sr. Jolynn, was of the discolored concrete floors in the cloister corridors. Originally painted burgundy and later repainted gray, they are now a visual testament to the thousands of feet that have prayerfully passed through St. Anthony’s. Due to the board of directors’ promise to the Capuchins, they will remain that way – an enduring sign of the presence of those who have gone before and forged ahead.

That vision solidified my own retreat experience and has stayed with me in the weeks since – drawing from both the old and new, finding God’s presence in my past and hope for my future, knowing I am physically and spiritually accompanied by thousands of sinners seeking to be saints, inspired by their experiences to cultivate my own – to retreat in order to advance.

More information about the variety of retreats and experiences offered at St. Anthony’s can be found at