By Jerry Duggan
White House Retreat in St. Louis has established a new tradition: Ignatian retreats specifically for Veterans. This summer marked its sixth annual retreat for women and men who served in the U.S. military.
The 100-year-old retreat house, an apostolate of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province, is located in south St. Louis County. It holds 60+ retreats annually focused on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.
While its programming is open to all, in recent years White House has offered “specialty” retreats tailored to particular groups, including veterans, Latinos, those in recovery and young adults.
Bill Schmitt, White House’s director and a veteran himself, had the idea when he came on board in 2014.
“Veterans have given so much of themselves, and this retreat, and all of our specialty retreats, are very important,” Schmitt said.
In the next few years, a counseling team comprised entirely of veterans and including men and women religious emerged. The group uses their own experiences to ensure a meaningful program. Father Jim Conroy, SJ, leads the team.
Father Ron Boudreaux, SJ, the province’s assistant for pastoral ministries, is on the leadership team, as is Sr. Amy Diesen, a Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help who directs the St. Louis branch of Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC), as well as several veteran specialists from all over the country.
Sr. Diesen considers herself both a part of the leadership team and a participant.
“To be a part of this this leadership team and help run this event is a blessing and a gift,” she said. “Since all the attendees are veterans, we understand each other on a deeper level. We don’t have to explain what it’s like to be a veteran because everyone there has lived it.”
This year’s retreat began on June 30 and ended on July 3. A group of about 65 veterans, including 15 women, attended. The participants, a mix of Catholics and non-Catholics from throughout the St. Louis metro area, are brought together by their experience serving their country.
Schmitt says that this retreat, while based in the Spiritual Exercises, is a little different than others by design.
“This isn’t your typical silent retreat,” he explained. “We encourage participants to share with each other, get out of their own heads and make connections. We want to show these veterans that they are not alone, their sacrifices are not forgotten, and most importantly that God is here for them.”
The retreat takes place right before our nation’s birthday (the 4th of July) each year.
“These are all patriots, and we want to celebrate them around – but not on – the 4th of July,” Schmitt said.
The cost of the retreat is just $30 per day, made possible by a golf tournament fundraiser held every October that defrays much of the cost. Scholarships are available for those who need assistance.
“It’s important that those men and women who served in the U.S armed forces who are interested in attending can do so, regardless of their ability to pay,” Schmitt said.
Sr. Diesen knows that the retreat is a success by hearing the attendees talk on the last day.
“’I’ve already decided to come back next year’ is something I hear a lot,” she said with a smile.