By Jerry Duggan
White House Jesuit Retreat outside St. Louis has served as hallowed ground for generations of Catholics. It remains true to the purpose for which it was founded: to comfort broken souls and bring retreatants closer to Christ through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. This year marks its 100th anniversary.
In the early 1900s, post-World War I America needed to be healed. People of faith, particularly Catholics, had begun turning to retreats for spiritual consolation. A “layman’s league” had formed in St. Louis. This network, consisting primarily of Catholic immigrants from Europe and their descendants, hosted retreats on an informal basis, congregating at members’ homes for prayer.
In 1921, Fr. Francis Xavier McMenamy, provincial of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus, saw both the need and an opportunity. He recognized the Spiritual Exercises as uniquely suited as a source of much-needed spiritual refreshment and sought a way to make them available to more people.
He commissioned Father James Monaghan, SJ, to find a physical spot for Jesuits to offer retreats. At the time there were few if any retreat houses in the St. Louis area.
Father Monaghan found a large estate in south St. Louis County, roughly two miles north of the intersection of the Meramec and Mississippi rivers. At that time, the 75-to-80-acre tract was surrounded by rural land and owned by the Christopher family. The road the White House is on, now today highly suburbanized, is still known as Christopher Drive.
The Society of Jesus purchased the land in 1922, and White House opened its doors. Its name harks to an enduring rumor of the time that the area around it was considered as a new location of the United States capital thanks to its central location, access to several major rivers and a military institution nearby.
Twelve men attended the first retreat on the property. The initial building, named for Fr. Monaghan, was large enough to house retreatants given the demand at that time. Most of the property remained undeveloped for many years.
Expansion was soon needed, and the prominent Mudd family donated money for a spiritual hub on the grounds. The chapel, which has stood for 90 years, attracted even more retreatants. A third structure, Snyder Hall, was built as a housing facility for retreatants.
Shortly thereafter, the layman’s league’s numbers dwindled, and White House had to bolster its outreach efforts into the St. Louis community, its urban core a train ride away.
By 1941, a Jesuit priest named Lawrence Chiuminatto began spreading the word about the retreat house in Catholic parishes throughout the area, and the number of retreatants grew exponentially.
According to White House’s current executive director, Bill Schmitt, it was under Fr. Chiuminatto that the retreat house really grew in influence.
“Father Monaghan built the car, but Fr. Chiuminatto shifted it into another gear, so to speak,” he said.
In the mid-20th century, White House began to offer retreats every week, year-round, arriving at 67 per year. Each retreat consisted of a four-day, three-night program based on the Spiritual Exercises.
Its offerings served as a blueprint for other retreat facilities, including Sacred Heart Retreat House in Sedalia, Colo., also staffed by Jesuits, and King’s House in nearby Belleville, Ill., among others.
Modernization and Inclusivity
By the 1980s, White House staff recognized the need for inclusion and began allowing women to attend retreats.
“We did a lot of good things in our early years, but it was time to open our doors to more of society,” Schmitt said. “For years, there was great desire among women to attend these retreats, and it was past time to include them.”
Today, around 30 percent of White House retreatants are women, and that proportion is growing.
Around that time, White House also began offering couple’s retreats, so that married men and women might have an opportunity to experience the Spiritual Exercises together.
In recent decades, White House has rolled out several “specialty” retreats, which remain rooted in the Spiritual Exercises but are tailored to resonate with a specific audience. White House now offers focused retreats for Catholic school students, young adults, military veterans, the Latino community and people in recovery.
According to Schmitt, this is an intentional effort to make the Exercises relatable to more people. “There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to experience the Spiritual Exercises,” he said. “They speak to different people in different ways, and anything we can do to help people of all walks of life make that connection to Christ, is time well-spent.”
These efforts have proved quite fruitful.
“When we first offered these specialty retreats, it was really an exploration of new territory, but they have all been quite successful,” Schmitt said. “In fact, we run out of space weeks in advance for many of them.”
Adapting to the Pandemic
In 2020, White House was confronted with a challenge unlike any another in its history: a global pandemic. After shuttering for the initial lockdown for several months (the first known, extended closure in its history), later in the year the House reopened, with stringent protocols in place.
“It was a difficult situation,” Schmitt said. “Especially when it comes to dining in close quarters with other retreatants, and the fact that we have large numbers of people staying here at once, we had to be very careful.”
In the interest of safety, White House implemented many precautions, such as requiring masks for all retreatants while indoors and taking the temperature of all retreatants upon arrival. These measures remain in place and have paid off.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have hosted more than 3,000 retreatants, and, by the grace of God, have not had any cases of COVID stemming from our retreat house,” Schmitt said. “We have done our part to keep the spread under control while still operating as close to normal as possible.”
A Look to the Future
The last decade has brought significant changes to White House. In 2014, Schmitt was named the first lay director in its history.
In addition, within the past 10 to 15 years, non-Jesuits have started to lead retreats, reflecting White House’s commitment to inclusivity.
White House is in the midst of a fundraising campaign with a main goal of funding capital improvements, in particular replacing the 50-year-old HVAC system in each retreatant room.
To mark the Society of Jesus’ Ignatian Year, White House has opened the “Ignatian Trail,” a nearly mile-long, rugged path complete with spots to pray and reflect on St. Ignatius’ own journey. This trail marks the “full development” of White House property – there is no longer any unused land.
Consistency of Mission
Through its many expansions, White House has kept its mission the same: to help people of faith grow spiritually through prayer, reflection and teaching in the tradition of the Spiritual Exercises. Schmidt says that consistency in focus is intentional.
“We always have been focused on the Spiritual Exercises because we believe that is the best way for us, in particular, to draw our retreatants closer to God,” he said. “This place would not exist without Ignatius, his Exercises and the Jesuits we have had on our staff throughout the 100 years.”
In addition, White House has kept the tradition of no charge for its retreats. A free-will donation is accepted, if desired. Most retreatants are generous.
“We believe we shouldn’t be making money off what we do. We are a nonprofit and exist to draw souls closer to Christ,” Schmitt said. “We have done that for 100 years, and, God-wiling, are poised to do it for 100 more.”
He believes that sacred spaces like White House are always needed.
“There is a reason we are still here and have withstood the test of time – because we heal souls and transform lives. As long as there is a need for that in this world, we will continue to be here for all people, for the Greater Glory of God.”