Board member Carol Swavely and Fr. Henry Beck, OFM, welcome retreatants. Photos by Sr. Eileen Connelly, OSU
“I feel peaceful here and very welcome.” ‘It’s as if the friars are opening their home to us.” “I experience God’s presence when I visit.”
Such comments are frequent from retreatants and visitors at St. Francis Retreat House (SFRH) in Easton, Pennsylvania. On a recent early fall afternoon, guests who began arriving for a weekend retreat were warmly greeted by the friars in ministry there and dedicated volunteers from the Retreat Team. Between welcoming the guests and directing them to their rooms, board member and longtime volunteer Carol Swavely said, “Because of the Franciscan charism, this is just such a gentle place to be. You come here and just give a big sigh. The friars are just so wonderful, very open and welcoming.”
For the next two days, the retreatants were led by Greg Friedman, OFM, who took them on a virtual pilgrimage to key places in the story of St. Francis, seeking to allow the saint’s journey to influence theirs through conversion, vocation, identification with Christ and a challenge to return to the world in Franciscan mission.
“Pilgrimage is a good way to look at life,” said Greg, a veteran pilgrimage leader to Assisi, Rome and the Holy Land. “It lends itself well to a way of looking at our journey of faith.”
In discussing conversion with the retreatants, Greg noted that it was an ongoing process for Francis, with turning points along the journey. As he told them of Francis’ call at San Damiano, Greg encouraged them to consider how they’ve experienced their call or vocation. From San Damiano, Francis began “managing a group of guys who were interested in following him,” Greg said, giving us “a sense of Franciscan life and how it evolved.”
Francis’ call, and our own call to follow the Gospel, challenges us to remember that we are to serve one another, to “follow the law of love and wash one another’s feet. This is the command of the Gospel. This is what it means to be church,” Greg said.
Followers of Francis today can continue to be inspired to care for creation, live joyfully, simply and in a spirit of love through the papal encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti, Greg advised the retreatants. ‘Francis is the centerpiece of these,” he said. “We are each called to do something, but can’t let ourselves be overcome by the complexities of our world. Pick a place where you can go to do some good. Make the place where you are holy.”
As the retreatants enjoyed brunch together before departing for home, they reflected on their weekend experience. Charlotte Kriner, OFS, said, “I feel like I’m leaving here with a new outlook on my vocation. In the past, I’ve felt overwhelmed and like I’m not doing enough. This weekend, and the example of Francis, are reminders of God’s love for me. I have a renewed sense of purpose now.”
“I had limited knowledge of who St. Francis was before, but learning who this man was helped me recognize that Jesus must be at the heart of everything and that God’s presence in my life is the most important thing,” added Marilyn Barrett.
Isabel McFarlane, OFS, and her husband, Al, traveled from Brooklyn to make the retreat. The couple, who recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, are frequent visitors to SFRH. “We come because of the hospitality and care from the friars,” Isabel said. “You really feel the presence of God here.” She said she especially appreciated the various scholarly resources about Francis that Greg shared during the retreat and the opportunity to deepen her sense of the saint’s influence in her life.
Al, who was previously unaware of Francis’ visit with the Egyptian Sultan, said he was particularly inspired by the saint’s faith and courage. “I really enjoyed Father Greg’s insights and discussions,” Al said. “He’s very knowledgeable and presented in way that everyone could understand and relate to.”
First time retreatant Paul Blaney came to SFRH for the weekend seeking a peaceful place to deepen his relationship with God. He left feeling inspired by Francis’ journey of faith and hopes to travel to Assisi himself one day. “I’m ready to be a pilgrim,” he said. “My whole experience on retreat was lovely. I definitely felt a gentle, guiding spirit there.”
The friars currently in ministry at the retreat house each share their gifts in a variety of ways and all find it rewarding. Mark Ligett, co-administrator of the retreat house, along with Sr. Regina Rokosny, OSF, handles retreat scheduling, manages the gift shop, lends his musical talents to the beautiful liturgies and teaches a Contemplative Living class; Henry Beck serves as chaplain and retreat director and teaches Lectio with Sunday Scriptures; Scott Obrecht works in marketing and development; Loren Connell, while retired, is guardian of the local friary, celebrates Mass, offers a Women in the Bible course and assists as needed; and Ed Skutka, also retired and in his 51st year of service at SFRH, washes dishes and charms retreatants with his lively sense of humor.
Mark recalls arriving at the retreat house 15 years to do “simple work” while recovering from a kidney transplant. As his ministry has expanded over the years, Mark has found it gratifying to see SFRH’s offerings grow to nurture people in their Catholic faith, while also providing a totally ecumenical space that welcomes “people of all faiths or no faith. We’re able to break down the walls of denominationalism and find the common element we all share as believers. And there is that universal love of St. Francis.”
“We offer people a fresh viewpoint of the Gospel, of spirituality, of the liturgy through the lens of Franciscan contemplation,” Mark said. “It’s hard to say how that’s different than what people may find elsewhere, but we find that they experience a comfort level that they haven’t found other places. People are hungry for God and we can offer them a peaceful place to come in contact with Him. People come here to be fed and they seem to leave satisfied.”
“This has been a good place for me to be,” said Loren, who came to SFRH three years ago. While discerning a place to land in retirement, he was “intrigued” by the retreat center’s ministry and looked forward to being closer to family in Connecticut.
“I enjoy our community here, the opportunity to preside at Mass and sharing my love for Scripture in class,” he added. “Over the years, I really came to see how the role of women in our lectionary has been minimized, how few times women have anything to say or do, and that’s what got me going. Throughout the class, we learn about the women of the Bible, and it’s another way of learning the story of salvation. We look at the stories of the women and the message and relevance for us today.”
Ed has ministered at SFRH his entire time as a friar. Making sure retreatants feel welcome is his first priority. Over the years, he made countless pots of coffee for guests. These days, whether he’s helping them locate their rooms, washing dishes or chatting with them at meal times, Ed said, “I really enjoy getting to know the people who come to our place and making them feel comfortable.”
He especially loves eliciting a good laugh from guests and has a joke book gifted to him by retreatants. “I just enjoy seeing people smiling and making them feel good,” he said.
Henry came to the retreat house in 2017, drawn by the opportunity to teach and serve in a retreat setting. He has found that both the members of the Sunday faith community, as well those who come for retreats and programing, are “looking for our Franciscan spirituality, that spirituality of love that we have, that love out of which we are created. We’re able accompany people as they discover new images of God, an inclusive God, a God that is forgiving, a God who invites to come into our true selves,” he said.
He has also experienced the healing aspect of the retreat center’s ministry to be rewarding, whether it’s through spiritual direction, pastoral counseling or the sacrament of reconciliation. “I believe there is definitely a healing aspect, a recovery aspect, to what we’re about,” Henry said. “We’re able to meet people where they are and help them to meet God and the Church more deeply.”
Staff members also agree there is something very special about SFRH. Regina, who has ministered there for 27 years, said, “I enjoy working with the friars. They’re an extension of my Franciscan family.”
She recalls her early days at SFRH answering phones and helping to set up for weekend retreats. Currently, she overseas housekeeping and finance and assures any maintenance issues are addressed. “The friars have always made me very welcome here. It’s just an extension of who they are,” she said. “I enjoy caring for the people who visit. We really work hard to ensure it’s a clean, welcoming, hospitable place for everyone.”
The coming months, and even years, will be busy at the retreat house. According to Mark, there are no free weekends until 2025, and groups are already being booked ahead for 2027. The schedule is packed with private retreats, sponsored retreats, men’s and women’s weekends, Monday mini-retreats and various group meetings. The next mini-retreat, titled “Why the Saints?” is scheduled for Oct. 17 and features Fr. Patrick Lamb, pastor of Queenship of Mary Parish, Northhampton, Pennsylvania. Fr. Lamb will attempt to show retreatants why the saints are important and how these historical figures can stir up our own faith.
With so much to offer and the increasing hunger for retreat experiences and spiritual programming, Mark said the retreat house would welcome additional friars to retire there, along with young friars to share their fresh perspectives and ideas. Ministry opportunities are available in areas such as retreat coordination and chaplaincy, pastoral ministry, development/fundraising, hospitality and music ministry, among others. Mark stressed that service at SFRH doesn’t need to be fulltime, enabling friars to also pursue other interests.
“In the future, I’d love to expand our sponsored retreats to marginalized groups, those in the fringe community, maybe people who have left the Church, those in the gay and lesbian community, people dealing with terminal illness,” he said. “Those are groups that have needs that aren’t necessarily being addressed and areas in which we could offer a great gift since it just fits who we are as Franciscans.”
“We have so much gratitude for what the Slovakian friars built here,” Henry said. “They laid the groundwork and built such a beautiful place. We’ve expanded on that, and now it feels like we’re on the verge of building something creative and new. We would love to have other friars join us in this.”
Learn more about the St. Francis Retreat House in Easton, Pa., at their website: stfrancisretreathouse.org