The Cenacle Retreat House in Metairie, which for 54 years has coordinated thousands of retreats and other adult faith formation programs for area Catholics, will close in 2013 and be sold due to the dwindling number of Cenacle Sisters to carry on the ministry, the congregation’s North American province announced Oct. 18.
Although its exact closing date is unknown, the Cenacle will continue to offer retreats, spirituality programs, hospitality, individual retreats and spiritual direction at least until the middle of 2013, said Cenacle Sister Rose Hoover, the Metairie Cenacle’s superior. Sister Rose said it was “our hope and our prayer” that the Cenacle would be able to honor its printed schedule of offerings, which lists its final retreat as taking place Aug. 14-17, 2013.
“We’re not sure if we’ll be doing some ministry after that, or what will happen,” Sister Rose said. “We are trusting in the Holy Spirit.”
Economics also were cited as contributing factors in the forthcoming closure, with the retreat ministry in the last several years experiencing the twin threats of diminishing financial resources and increasing costs associated with maintaining its physical plant. The retreat house, located on about 20 acres of magnolia- and oak-shaded lakefront property at 5500 St. Mary St., was built in 1958. It features a chapel, a convent and 52 bedrooms.
Four sisters serve locally
“Congregations of sisters and their ministries have undergone significant changes, particularly in personnel and finances. Cenacle Sisters in North America have met over many months to engage in studies, discussion and prayer about our situation,” Sister Rose said. “As a result of this long study and discernment, the North American province of the Cenacle recommended to our General Government in Rome that the Metairie house be closed and the property sold. Our international leadership has accepted this recommendation.”
The local community of Cenacle Sisters, formally known as the “Religious of Our Lady of Retreat in the Cenacle,” currently numbers four sisters, a decrease of three from just last year. At its peak, its Metairie convent was home to more than a dozen sisters. The North American province of Cenacle Sisters currently numbers about 100 sisters, most of them elderly.
News travels quickly
The Cenacle also has a paid staff of about 20 full- and part-time employees, as well as more than 170 collaborators in ministry, 117 of them retreat captains involved in retreat recruitment.
Prior to announcing their plans to close, the Cenacle Sisters broke the news to staffers and collaborators at a series of meetings. Additional friends of the Cenacle – retreatants and benefactors who comprise a mailing list of nearly 7,000 people – were informed through a letter mailed on Oct. 12. The Cenacle immediately began receiving a barrage of phone calls, emails and letters expressing sadness over the turn of events.
“It is very painful. Our hearts are heavy. There is a lot of grief both on our part and on the part of people who come here,” said Sister Rose, noting that the decision to close was not made on the local level, but as the result of talks within the international congregation of sisters.
“One thing that we’re hearing now (with this news) is how important the Cenacle has been to so many people, and how sad people are about the idea of the Cenacle closing,” she said. “We’re very sad, too. We realize the necessity for the decision, but we’re very sad about it.”
Sister Rose’s ties to the Cenacle date to 1975, the year she came to New Orleans to study at Notre Dame Seminary and work as the music director at St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie. After taking several spiritual retreats, the Florida-raised Sister Rose entered the Cenacle Sisters’ convent in 1978 and took her final vows inside the Metairie chapel in 1985.
“I consider New Orleans my spiritual home,” said Sister Rose, who returned to the Metairie Cenacle last September after 12 years as founder of a Cenacle spiritual center in Gainesville, Fla.
“Sharing in someone’s spiritual life and seeing how is God is working in that person’s life is such a privilege,” she said. “And it’s humbling.”
The actual closing of the house will be under the direction of the Cenacle Sisters’ Chicago-based North American province, headed by Sister Mary Sharon Riley, province councilor. She could offer no concrete timetable for the property’s sale.
“While this is a time of great sadness for us, it is also a time of gratitude,” Sister Mary Sharon said. “We are grateful to God, who has allowed us to minister to so many people for so many years. We have been blessed to be part of the greater New Orleans community – and beyond – for such a long time.”
The retreat house, built in 1958 at the request of local Catholic women who wanted a retreat house for women like the one their husbands had at Manresa, boasts large meeting and dining halls, a library and small parlors for one-one-one spiritual direction. Men are welcome to avail themselves of the Cenacle’s workshops and ongoing spiritual direction opportunities, however the traditional “silent preached” retreats continue to be reserved for women only.
“It has been a privilege for us to welcome and serve so many people in the joys, sorrows and search for meaning in their lives,” said Cenacle Sister Gloria Haagensen, the Metairie Cenacle’s coordinator of ministry.
“It is a real sadness for us that we’re not going to be able to continue to serve the people for whom this place has meant so much, but at the same time we are grateful to God for the blessings that have happened in the last 55 years, and we’re grateful for the wonderful support and assistance we’ve had in conducting this ministry,” Sister Gloria said. “In addition to it being a privilege to be able to walk with people in their faith journeys, it’s also a great sorrow to have to let them know that we will be unable to continue to do that in this region.”
Future of site uncertain
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who has given retreats at the Cenacle and whose spiritual directors once included a Cenacle Sister, expressed his own sadness over the closure, but understood the need for the sisters to consolidate personnel. He said he would welcome collaboration with anyone who was interested in retaining the Metairie site as a retreat center.
“We are interested, if it is humanly possible, in some way to have the ministry continue,” the archbishop said. “I don’t know what that means or what that would look like. It’s far too early to tell.”
The Cenacle Sisters will continue to minister out of their provincial headquarters in Chicago; at large retreat houses in Houston and Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; at smaller spiritual centers in Gainesville, Fla., Lantana, Fla., Atlanta and Vancouver, B.C.; and in 14 other countries.
Before it closes permanently, events will be staged to give the public and all associated Cenacle Sisters a chance to say farewell, Sister Rose said.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.