King’s House of Retreats: The First 50 Years (1951 – 2001)
By Fr. Bob Aaron, OMI
In early 1946, Bishop Henry Althoff called a meeting of religious and lay leaders to address the possibility of establishing a retreat center in the diocese. A year later his pastoral letter to the Catholics of the diocese announced that a diocesan retreat house, under the direction of the Oblates, would be established. A preliminary building committee was formed and Bishop Althoff’s 25-year-old dream moved closer to reality. However, Bishop Althoff was not to see his dream completed. One month after his pastoral letter was announced, an illness ended with his death on July 3, 1947.
In October of that year, his successor, Bishop Albert Zuroweste, launched the King’s House Fund Raising Campaign at a general assembly of clergy and laity at Mazenod Hall on the grounds of St. Henry’s Seminary. From this group, Bishop Zuroweste established an Advisory Board to begin generating funds for building. The board was made up of representatives from the Diocese of Belleville, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. Mr. Oliver L. Parks, founder of Parks Air College, was appointed general chairman. He and the committee set into motion the process of fundraising.
A Speakers Bureau was organized to assist in the process. This Speakers Bureau consisted of 20 Jesuits from St. Louis University who volunteered, along with Oblate fathers from St. Henry’s Seminary. These men offered their time and talent to speak at meetings and preach at Sunday Masses to explain the importance of retreats.
Bishop Albert Zuroweste of Belleville spoke these words to a group of priests and laymen of the diocese gathered at St. Henry’s prep school on February 2, 1948:
“Ever since 1934, when I became editor of The Messenger, I have felt that if anything was to save the world from the sorry plight into which it had fallen, it would be found in the spiritual regeneration of our Catholic laity. This spiritual regeneration cannot come simply from attendance at Sunday Mass; its source must be found in something deeper. Man must have time to know himself, to study his weaknesses, his faults, his sins; and in humility and contrition acknowledge these faults and by the grace of God be determined to improve and make himself a better man, a better Christian, a better soldier of Christ, to attain that goal to which he has been called.”
Bishop Zuroweste continued speaking of the importance of prayer, meditation, and serious examination of conscience. This discovery took place in a “place apart from the ordinary routine of daily life, personal interests, telephones, and matters that continually distract us.”
“Where can this happen?” became a pivotal question in the ongoing endeavor to establish king’s House of Retreats.
In 1948, the Funding Committee announced the purchase of the Albert Hoeffken estate known as Five Hills Farm: “a secluded and heavily wooded 40-acre tract.” Shortly afterward, an additional 2.2 acres were added to secure a second roadway to and from the property. Plans were drawn and construction of the Retreat Center began with the groundbreaking ceremony on December 2, 1949. The general construction contract was given to Bauer Brothers Construction and Supply Company of Belleville. During construction another group was established: the Funding Committee evolved into the Diocesan Laymen’s Retreat League. This group has in turn evolved into our present day “Captains List”: parish representatives held in high esteem for their recruiting and contact between King’s House and the individual parishes. These men and women have proven to be a valuable component of the ministry here at King’s House throughout the years.
On Sunday, July 22, 1951, Phase One of the King’s House project was completed with the dedication of the new structure. Bishop Zuroweste’s dedication address established an everlasting mission statement for King’s House:
“In our own little world, in our own little way, we must expose our hearts to the loving Christ…. When groups of men come week after week to rebuild spiritually, the dynamo of their spiritual life, they will become the source of new spiritual light in a world of darkness. They will leave King’s House refreshed, revivified not only in mind and body, which is secondary, but refreshed in soul. They will go forth and teach, by example, the value of the grandeur and nobler things of life. Each will become an apostle for virtue, for charity, for Christian living and for morality.”
The first retreat at King’s House was held the following weekend, July 26 – 30, 1951, following the pattern used for retreats at the Jesuit Retreat Center (White House) in Missouri. The men on this retreat were those on the Executive Committee and the Advisory Board. The first retreat open to the various parishes began August 10 and ended August 12, 1951, using the three-day schedule we continue to this day.
“2500 Attend the King’s House in First Year,” was the headline in the October 2, 1952 edition of The Messenger [the Belleville Diocesan newspaper]. In the 50 weekends of retreats, 2,174 retreatants came from all parts of southern Illinois, St. Louis, and the Springfield diocese. One 70-year-old retreatant remarked to a reporter from The Messenger: “This is my first retreat. I only wish I had made it when I was 17.”
Three midweek retreats for women began the summer of 1952. 138 women attended—a sizable number since there were no women “captains” organized to recruit. Priests from the Belleville Diocese made use of King’s House as a gathering space for their retreats as well as eight monthly Days of Recollection. Fr. Alphonse Simon, OMI was appointed Director in 1951 and in 1952 Fr. Emile Helfrich, OMI became the assistant Director.
In August 1953 Fr. Arthur Sullivan, OMI was appointed the second Director, followed by father Edward A. Killian, OMI, Director from 1956 to 1957. In 1960 attendance was listed at 3,396 retreatants—an average of almost 51 persons per retreat. Fr. Emile Helfrich, OMI was the fourth Director by this time, appointed in 1957. 39 men’s retreats, 16 women’s retreats, six high school boys’ and one high school girls’ retreats were offered during the year. There were also six retreats for Diocesan Clergy and one retreat for Religious Sisters.
In the July 61 issue of The Messenger an announcement was made that Fr. Helfrich was assigned another ministry and Fr. James Kohmetscher, OMI was appointed his successor. Attendance grew from the 1960 number to 3,496 retreatants. 40 men’s retreats, 16 women’s retreats, seven high school boys’ retreats, four high school girls’ retreats, and four clergy retreats were held during 1961.
Retreat numbers continued to grow. Father Floyd Boeckman, OMI, Director in 1965, reported an attendance of 4,551 retreatants. Many of the retreats were completely filled with men or women from one parish. There were 25 student groups making retreats at King’s House.
The first expansion of King’s House occurred in 1968 with the construction of the Large Conference Center. Construction was necessary to accommodate the increasing numbers of men and women making retreats or otherwise utilizing the facility. Also the covered walkway connecting the dining room, chapel and the sleeping area was enclosed into the present hallway. In the early 80’s a new chapel was constructed in the old chapel was converted into office space, gift shop, and an additional Small Conference Room. Fr. James Lantsberger, OMI, succeeded Fr. Boeckman as Director in 1969. Fr. Pat Carroll, OMI, followed. Other directors to follow were Fr. Helfrich, his second appointment as Director. He was followed by Fr. Tom Hayes, OMI, Fr. Jim Taylor, OMI, and the current Director Br. Bill Johnson, OMI.
Brother Vic Capek, OMI, a longtime feature of King’s House, arrived in 1963. Except for a time of study in St. Paul, Minnesota, his quiet presence, welcoming, and joyful smile has graced the halls of King’s House since that year. Not only does he remain close to the retreatants who have grown to know and love him, Vic is also our “walking memory” of events that have taken place here.
Father James E. Taylor, Director from 1988 to 1992, writes: “Retreats had been at a low ebb during the 80’s. Quite a few retreat houses in the area were struggling and would eventually close their doors. King’s House experienced the downside, but was still quite viable. “During my tenure as Director emphasis was placed on restoring the buildings, beautifying the grounds, recovering youth retreats, opening the retreat facilities to outside groups, especially 12-Step programs, offering counseling, providing opportunities for lay ministry, establishing an Endowment Fund and encouraging more realistic offerings for services rendered. “A generous staff and dedicated retreat masters provided retreatants with spiritual consolation from a variety of perspectives. The retreat movement was clearly on the rise, and King’s House was prepared to accept the challenge.”
While in the early 70’s to early 80’s the numbers dropped (a nationwide experience), presently we find new enthusiasm for retreats gaining momentum. The staff of King’s House continues to offer Quiet Weekend Retreats for men and women, Days of Prayer for the elderly, Seasonal Days of Prayer, Spiritual Direction (Companioning), and several specialized program such as women’s spirituality, an ecumenical program designed for and by women to discuss their particular approach to spirituality. Taize Prayer gatherings are taking root after our first Taize-styled retreat in November, 2000. During the summers we offer Directed Retreats, and Retreats for Religious Women. Priests from the Belleville and Springfield dioceses make their annual retreats here. Numerous elementary and high schools are regular guests for days of prayer and other four-day retreats. Diocesan and Parish office personnel come for Staff Days. We also have a growing number of ecumenical groups which make use of quiet days of reflection. Engaged Encounters conduct some of their yearly weekends at King’s House. A variety of 12-Step groups hold weekly meetings here as well.
One longtime retreatant, Mr. Charles Boeckmann, said, “Many changes have taken place over the years, but there has been one constant, a place to bring tough questions and get honest answers.”
King’s House underwent a major renovation in 1999. It is amazing what new paint, carpeting, windows, and an elevator can do for a place. With the new fan coil units in each room to facilitate individual regulation of heat and air-conditioning, the special “tools” to close vents as well as our supply of duct tape are a thing of the past. Korte Construction was the general contractor, and Barton Electric subcontracted the electrical work. The elevator was installed by Dover, Paintsmiths put new life on the faded walls, Hirth Heating and Cooling redid the HVAC, Villa Lighting supplied new fixtures for the rooms, Spengler Plumbing Company rejuvenated the showers and plumbing, Trane computerized the new energy management system, flooring and carpeting was replaced by Paul Abt flooring, Pella windows were installed throughout the Center, George Weis Plasterers reconditioned our plaster walls, Landscape 1 of Belleville restored the lawn and gardens surrounding the Center, including the water pond.
Carol Hiatt Associates added interior touches with color, coordinating paint, carpeting, borders, drapery, wall hangings, and accessories. Woolpert LLP Company engineered the overall project
The current staff of King’s House is grateful for the foundation laid by the staff of the past 50 years. The dedication of the men and women who have worked so hard to renew King’s House has made our task much easier.
The Closing Prayer from the 1951 Dedication Ceremony seems to sum up well the continued mission of King’s House:
“King’s House is now open. It welcomes all who feel drawn by the grace of God to embrace a life of penance and reparation. In the words of the Psalmist: ‘Oh Lord give victory to the King and hear us in the day we call upon you.’ (Psalm 19:10)
“May the Immaculate Mother of God guard its portals. May Christ the King reign here throughout all ages. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.”