Abbey’s pristine Christian Life Center rises from flood

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

The Christian Life Center at St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict is situated on some of the highest land of the 1,200-acre Benedictine monastery and seminary college.

But in March 2016, that pride of perch still was no match for the massive flooding that swept through the abbey campus, sending water into 30 buildings. Even though the retreat center sustained only six inches of water, the flood event still was enough to create a multimillion-dollar mess.

Now, after a $3.5 million restoration – some of it reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – the Christian Life Center has been transformed from a dowdy, 50-year-old facility in need of serious attention into a sleek, retrofitted building with fewer but more spacious rooms designed with married couples in mind.

Back in business

The center reopened last month with a retreat for married couples, followed by a retreat for members of the Monday Night Disciples and then by a conference for a quilters’ group. Last week, nearly three dozen Benedictine abbots from across the U.S. attended a three-day retreat on the topic of “creating a culture of vocations.”

Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown said about three-fourths of the post-flood construction work at the abbey has been finished – a multi-story library with a view of downtown Covington is nearing completion – and he characterized the reopening of the retreat center as a major milestone in recovery.

 

“Even before the flood came, we had a plan to renovate the bedrooms because the building was built in 1966 and had the original heating and cooling system and the original electrical system,” Abbot Justin said. “At the same time, we had a growing number of retreats for married couples, so we wanted the rooms to be user friendly for married couples. The flood actually opened up the possibility of doing more renovations.”

Expanded bedrooms

In redesigning the facility from the bottom up, the monks decided to tear out the plumbing in the bedroom wings so that the new rooms would be bigger.

“We essentially designed it so that three rooms became two,” Abbot Justin said. “Each married couple used to have its own room, but the two rooms were inter-connected. Now, we have fewer rooms, but we can actually handle more married couples.”

Among the nicest improvements to the thermally challenged, Abbot Justin said, is that each room now has its own thermostat, eliminating one of the biggest drawbacks of the original facility.

Deacon Mark Coudrain, who oversees the Christian Life Center, said each room has a queen bed, a reading niche with a pull-out sofa and a much larger bathroom. The monks and volunteers at St. Joseph Woodworks fabricated the cypress headboards for the beds and the ceiling valences, and the marble from the showers in the original rooms was cut down to create desktops.

“We made the headboards out of the same cypress we use to make the caskets,” Deacon Coudrain said.

A new, expansive deck provides an outdoor area for reflection and barbecues. A space-saving idea is the bathroom door, which operates like a barn door that rolls horizontally on a metal rail to open and close. A floor-to-ceiling sunscreen rolls up or down to adjust the amount of exterior light coming into the room, and the energy-efficient windows are double-paned. An additional small conference room has been added, allowing the center to conduct two small retreats simultaneously.

No sweat, no chills

But the biggie is the individual room thermostat, Abbot Justin said.

“We used to tell the cold people, ‘Switch rooms with someone who’s hot,’” he said, laughing. Now, that comfort zone will be adjustable with the flick of a finger.

The abbey hopes to host about 65 retreats annually, including days of reflection for parish or school staffs, clergy retreats and artists’ retreats.

The sanctuary of the renovated chapel is highlighted by a wooden corpus, crafted in the 1800s in Bruges, Belgium.

Although the abbey received some FEMA reimbursement, the first $500,000 of repairs for each renovated building was not covered, Abbot Justin said. Anyone interested in donating to the rebuilding effort can contact www.saintjosephabbey.com.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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