The Story of My First Demontreville Retreat in Lake Elmo, Minnesota

JesuitRetreatHouse

34 years ago, I made my first retreat at Demontreville.  Demontreville is a Jesuit Retreat Center in Lake Elmo Minnesota.  I was not a Jesuit or even a practicing Catholic when I made my first retreat.  In fact, I hailed myself as an atheist or sometimes an agnostic.  I like agnosticism since it is a “just in case” religion.   Just in case there is a heaven, hell, devil or god, I can always claim that I did not totally disavow him/her.  This might give me a chance to get by the pearly gates.  Anyway, I did not go to Demontreville for the religious experience.

WintertrailIt was January of 1986.  I had finished all my course work for my Ph.D. degree.  It had already been a long and cold and snowy Minnesota winter.  I had finally collected all the data I needed to finish my dissertation.  Four years in school, working part-time, divorced, no money and writing a dissertation had just about wrung me out.  I needed a vacation but had no money.  Someone told me about this place called Demontreville which they described as a sort of place to get away from life.  They had beautiful facilities, private rooms and some really nice ski trails.  You could get three free meals for four days and there was no charge.  It was all based on voluntary donations.  Weekend retreats ran from Thursday evening to Sunday evening.

This sounded too good to be true.  I packed my knapsack with some fun reading.  Threw some schoolwork in and loaded my skis on my car ski rack.  Just in case, the trails were not very good, I brought alone my running gear.  Off, I went from St. Paul to Demontreville in Lake Elmo, Mn.

Demontreville-Jesuit-Retreat-House

I arrived at a beautiful (I thought resort) nestled in an old pine forest.  I drove down a wonderfully secluded road and past a horse stable.  “Wow,” I thought, “I might even be able to get some horse back riding in.”  The weather was cold, and snow covered all the grounds and buildings.  It was a scene out of paradise.  I could not believe my good fortune.  Of course, I still wondered whether or not there was a fixed charge in which case I was screwed.  I had brought fifty dollars with me and just in case a check book.  However, my bank account was about zero.

I was directed by a young man in front of a large garage at the end of the road on where to park my car.  I took my suitcase and followed a bunch of older men down a hill and into what appeared to be a large conference center.  It was about 6 pm.  I had been told that arrival time each week was between 6 PM and 7 PM on Thursdays and that I could leave after dinner on Sunday night.  I was perfectly willing to spend three days here.

maxresdefaultWhen I went into the “conference” center, there were many men milling around and talking in small groups.  I am not the most social guy in the world, so I took a seat on a couch by myself and commenced reading a magazine called America.  This is a magazine published by the Jesuits each month and to this day I always enjoy reading it.  depositphotos_201877558-stock-video-male-friends-are-talking-toAt about 6:50 PM or so, a Jesuit priest arrived and after a loud hand clap, announced that dinner was being served.  We first said a short prayer called the Angelus and then went into the dining hall which is connected to the conference center.  The “conference center” is really just a large room to relax in.  It has numerous chairs and sofas scattered about a well-lit room with large windows looking out over the grounds.  It is one of the most peaceful places in the world to sit, reflect and enjoy a coffee.  The conferences (Which I learned about later) are all held in the chapel which is also connected to the dining hall.  The only time you have to leave the building is to go to your room.  I was given a room assignment upon entering the conference center.

seating-arrangements

Tables are organized in the dining center with places for four or five people at each table.  We were advised that once we had a seat, that was where we were expected to stay for the weekend.  We were asked to fill out a dining card specifying what we wanted to drink with each meal (alas, no beer) and any dietary preferences or restrictions.  Once we put this on the table, we needed to take the same table and the same seat for the duration of the retreat.

Things were still going along fine.  Most of the other men who had joined me at a dining table were older men.  I had just turned forty.  We did some chit chat about where we were from and what we did and of course, how many retreats we had done at Demontreville.  One guy at my table had done 40 retreats.  I was astounded that anybody could keep coming back to the same place for that many years.  On the last night of each retreat, awards are given to men who have made 20 or more retreats.  Oh, I should also mention that there were NO women at the retreat.  It is a male only enclave.  I figured that this was my first and last retreat.  I could not see myself as an old guy here getting an award for attending twenty retreats never mind forty or more.

Dinner, the first night was roast beef.  Meals are almost always the same at each retreat.  For 34 years now, I have had roast beef on Thursday night and Prime Rib on Sunday night.  Other meals are also fixed.  One breakfast will include pancakes, one will have French toast and one will include omelets.  The same predictability is true for lunch and supper meals.  Many men can tell you exactly what will be served for each meal.  You soon figure out that consistency is an important concept at Demontreville.  I actually look forward to the meals each day as they are always plentiful and very well prepared.

Lecture or sermons (hard to tell the difference) are on a fixed schedule every day.  We have some in the morning, some in the afternoon and some in the evening.  There are of course the Catholic worship services every day.  These include prayer sessions every morning and a full mass at 5 PM each day followed by Benediction at 8 PM.  Oh, please don’t let me forget to mention the all-important cookies and coffee which are served every morning and afternoon at the same time each day.  If you don’t like the wonderful cookies that are served, there are always bananas and oranges to eat.

Sthokal-Story-Image

So here I sit, my first night at Demontreville.  We have finished eating and desert has been served.  We are almost done with desert when a thunderous voice rings out followed by a loud hand clap.  I turn to see a short but rugged looking little priest named Father Ed. Sthokal, SJ.  Father Sthokal is the Retreat Director.  Father Sthokal was born on January 20, 1922.  He was ordained a Jesuit in 1954 and came to Demontreville in the late fifties.  He was an icon at the Retreat Center due to his longevity.  When he finally retired at the age of 95 to a Jesuit community in Wisconsin, he had served almost sixty years at the Retreat Center in various capacities.  He struck me as a drill sergeant when I first met him.  Tough, no nonsense but with a total dedication to helping the men attending Demontreville to “make” a good retreat.

“Good evening” Father Sthokal said.  He then launched into a mini sermon which in my nearly 30 retreats with him never seemed to vary, except for this first night.  Of course, it was my “virginity” at the time which caused his message to seem very personal.  In actuality, his themes never seemed to change from year to year, but they were always inspiring, funny and somewhat caustic every time I heard them.  He talked about discipline, making a good retreat, being “disposed” and responsibility.  Tonight though, what I heard was this.

“Okay, some of you men are here for the first time.  Well let me tell you, this is not the place for a vacation.  I see some of you guys have brought your work with you, well maybe that is why you can’t get your work done, because you have no boundaries in your life.  Some of you have brought ski’s (Oh MY GOD, he is talking about me!), well this is not a ski resort. The trails are there for you to walk on and meditate on about your reason and purpose in life and what God wants for you in your life.  Some of you have brought fiction books to read so you can escape the daily grind of your boring humdrum lives, while this is not the place for that.  If you want to escape life, go get a room at a hotel and spend the week in a hot tub reading.”

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“We are here this weekend, to spend time reflecting and thinking and praying and meditating.  You will get the most out of this retreat if you are disposed and do not have any agenda.  Let God come into your life and talk to you.  Open your heart and mind to what God has to say to you.  This will allow you to make a good retreat.  Oh, and we expect silence from this point on in the retreat until supper on Sunday night.  One of our key rules is no talking.  This allows each man to listen to God and not to the chatter and gossip that is typical of communication outside of these walls.  We have no radios, no TVs, no internet and no news from the outside for you.  In the event of a family emergency, we will contact you.  Until then, don’t call your wife and kids or friends to chat.  Put your phones away.  Observe silence.  Please adjourn now to the basement where we have some ground rules to go over and we will ask for volunteers to help out with certain parts of the retreat.”

Oh my God!  Except I don’t believe in God.  What am I doing here?  I wonder if I can sneak out when no one is looking.  He must have x ray vision.  How did he know that I had work and books to read?  This is another fine mess I have gotten myself into!

I stayed for the entire retreat.  I have come back for 34 more.  I now stand up with the old timers when they get awards and recognition for retreats made.  I cannot believe I am still coming.  I am still an Atheist or on some days an Agnostic.  To me Jesus Christ is a great religious leader along with Moses, Muhammed, Baháʼu’lláh, Buddha, Krishnamurti and Osho.  I cannot totally describe how much these retreats have meant to me.

In my next blog, I would like to discuss my 2019 retreat and what it taught me.  In many ways, this retreat was very typical of my other retreats.  Every year, I take notes and jot down reflections.  I would like to share with you some of the insights and thoughts from my 2019 retreat.  These insights were and are very meaningful to me and I hope they may also be meaningful to you.  In any case, they will give you a better idea of why I keep coming back to these retreats.  Father Sthokal once joked that it simply takes some of us longer to “get it” than others.  Perhaps, I am one of those men.

For any of you who might be interested in attending a retreat:

  • The Silent Retreats are held 47 weekends a year at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House, 8243 Demontreville Trail N., Lake Elmo.
  • The retreat house is not open on the weekends of New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Men of any denomination are welcome to attend. Free-will donations are accepted.
  • For more information, call 651-777-1311 or go to demontrevilleretreat.com.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jane Fritz
    Apr 10, 2020 @ 13:20:33

    WoW, how utterly fascinating. I’m hooked, John. I’ll be waiting for your next post!

    Reply

    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Apr 10, 2020 @ 13:46:37

      Thanks Jane, I started out to write the second post but realized I needed to have some context so had to go back in history. 34 years ago, but I could never believe all this time has gone by. I am now one of the old guys. Father Sthokal is still alive and in a home for Jesuits and I guess he is as feisty as ever. He is 98 years old now.

      Reply

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