By Debbie Oglenski
The Catholic Weekly
SPRING LAKE — After more than 60 years of service, St. Lazare Retreat House closed its doors on Wednesday, July 31. The closing was marked with a service attended by several hundred people, including Grand Rapids Bishop David Walkowiak.
The retreat house was operated by the Eastern Province U.S.A. Vincentians, priests and brothers of St. Vincent de Paul. Fr. Vincent O’Malley, the last retreat house director, announced in a March newsletter that the facility would close its doors in July, due to personnel and financial issues. His article said that in 1973 the Vincentians had 333 priests and, at present, there are only 119 priests in the Eastern Province. The newsletter article also said the decision to close was made by the Vincentian Provincial Council in Philadelphia.
Fr. O’Malley’s newsletter article said the property would be sold and, if the property was not purchased by a Catholic entity, the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Shrine would be moved to a location to be decided. In his May newsletter, O’Malley said the facility would likely be razed and it was likely a developer would purchase the property.
Calls from the order in reference to the closing were not returned.
The retreat center on the shore of Spring Lake generally hosted 40 retreat weekends a year, according to its website. Those included retreats for men and women, Project Rachel, youth and Alcoholics Anonymous. The website said that 100,000 people had used the retreat house since 1953.
Mary Lou Dutkiewicz of St. Stanislaus parish in Dorr, 15 miles south of Grand Rapids, served as a captain for retreat teams from 1956 until it closed. She also served on the St. Lazare Retreat House board of directors for about 10 years in the 1990s. Her late husband, Dick, also attended the retreat house weekends, starting about five years after she began attending.
Her reaction to the closing was mixed with sadness and anger.
“My tummy rolled for two days,” she said. “Every time I thought of it, tears would come to my eyes because all of the people who weren’t going to be blessed like we were blessed.”
On the other hand, she felt anger that there were no longer enough priests to fill the void and that a lack of participation in retreats caused loss in funds to operate the facility.
She said she sent a letter to Bishop Walkowiak asking him to look into the matter to see if anything could be done to save the retreat house.
Dutkiewicz said St. Lazare Retreat House changed lives. Without the experience of the retreat weekends she said she and her husband would not have become the self-givers they became. The retreats at St. Lazare provided time to enrich their faith away from their busy mom and pop store and eight children.
“We wouldn’t have gotten to know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit like we did,” she said. “The more you get to know Jesus, the more you love Him and the more you respond to trying to do His will.”
As residents of a small community they knew the needs and as their faith blossomed through the retreat house experience, so did their response to those needs. She said they tried to be more Christ-like.
Nancy Carpenter of St. Therese Parish in Wayland also sent a letter to Bishop Walkowiak requesting his intervention because she believes the permanent closing of St. Lazare is a great loss to the Catholic community.
“I hope there is some way we can keep it open for the Church,” she said, “as opposed to having it go to an affluent person.”
She, too, was saddened by the news of the closing.
“I am very, very sad,” Carpenter said. “It brings a tear to my eyes now.”
Carpenter said the silent retreats she attended were life changing, offering her a one-on-one with the Lord without distractions.
“It has drawn me closer to the Lord,” she said, “and it is just a very holy place and it has made me closer to Him.”
David Bockheim of Holy Spirit Parish in Grand Rapids attended St. Lazare on retreat for the first time in 1965. He became a captain the following year. When he first started attending his annual retreat weekends, there were about 25 in attendance from his parish. The last time he served as captain, three years ago, there were only eight in attendance. At 78, he said he doesn’t know a lot of the newer, younger members of the parish, but they all seem so busy.
“Quiet time for a weekend probably is not on their agenda,” he said, “although very needed, judging from the numbers not going to church.”
In today’s fast-paced world, Bockheim thinks an experience like the one offered at St. Lazare is needed “desperately.”
He’s also disappointed in the closing of St. Lazare.
“I have gone for so long, I hate to see it leave,” he said. “It was a time of quiet and a time to reconnoiter with your Maker.
“I was in hopes that one of our entrepreneurs (from the Diocese of Grand Rapids) would come forward to save it.”
Marlene Bechtel of St. Ann Parish in Cadillac attended St. Lazare for the past 20 years and served as a captain for the past 10 or 12 years. Her last retreat was just 10 days before the closing.
“My personal reaction was that I was extremely saddened,” she said. “It was always such a special opportunity. I felt like when I had my yearly retreat it was like going home. I realize it is so important to have some time away and silence was extremely moving and helpful and emotional in a lot of ways.”
She said the atmosphere was “serene.”
“You felt the presence of the Lord when you were there,” she said.
The Vincentians helped, she added.
“The priests I came in contact with over the past 20 years have been helpful and understanding,” she added. “The first time you would meet them you felt like you knew them a long time.”
Pat Quinn from St. Paul the Apostle in Grand Rapids attended a “snowbird retreat” mid-week at St. Lazare for the past 14 years. His last retreat was Tuesday and Wednesday, July 16-17 — the last men’s retreat hosted at St. Lazare.
He also was disappointed and saddened feelings at learning St. Lazare would close. He enjoyed the picturesque, quiet location.
“It’s just such a quiet place for a retreat in that setting,” Quinn said. “It was the perfect place to meditate. The natural setting was conducive to meditation and getting away from it all to look at the spiritual side of life and your life.”†