After 45 years as a haven of prayer, education and spiritual renewal, the Upper Room Spiritual Center in Neptune has announced that the ministry, which drew seekers from around the Diocese and well beyond, will begin closing down at the end of December.

The news came in the form of a letter to the ministry’s legion of “great and loyal friends” from the Center’s three co-directors, Sister of St. Joseph Trudy Ahern and Mercy Sisters Maureen Conroy and Maureen Christensen.

The decision, based on a number of factors, did not come easily, they wrote. Included among them were the expiration of the building’s lease and the need for major renovations to bring the building up to current fire codes as a place for guests.

The “declining number of people seeking spiritual programs due to COVID restrictions,” which internet research shows has affected retreat centers around the country, also played a part as did “the aging and diminishing numbers of regular clientele.”

The sisters noted that the ministry will continue through December and that they will use “January through March to clean out files and find new homes for books, equipment and artwork that might be useful to help other spiritual centers.”

In separate interviews, the sisters, who are all spiritual directors and retreat leaders, reflected on the poignancy of the development but see the coming months as a time to focus, as Sister Ahern said, “on the graces and blessings that God has showered on the Upper Room.”

They shared how throughout its 45 years, the Upper Room consistently offered the faithful of the Trenton Diocese and the Tri-State area a variety of retreats and spiritual enrichment programs as well as individual spiritual direction.

These included retreat days for parish and school communities, professional development for spiritual directors and leadership training in many areas of personal and spiritual growth. Programs in centering prayer, praying with music and Ignatian Spirituality drew followings. So did day and evening sessions that ranged from mindfulness to “Knitting and Prayer” which produced countless prayer shawls for the ill and grief stricken.

The Upper Room’s widely attended annual spirituality conference, always held in November, drew a list of impressive speakers including Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr and Servite of Mary Sister Joyce Rupp.

“People would come from all over for the programs and evenings of recollection that always included prayer and group faith sharing,” said Sister Conroy who has been with the Upper Room since its inception.

“We became one of the first to offer a training program for spiritual directors in the country. We discerned it for several years … We were always a hub of training and we set a tone for spiritual direction programs in a contemplative mode. Our approach was to help people notice and savor their experience of God.”

“We always had at least ten certified spiritual directors that have volunteered their time and offered a wonderful spiritual presence,” said Sister Conroy, an internationally recognized author and presenter of programs on spiritual direction.

The community outreach that developed over the years in a wide range of programs was a boon to the community at large, said Sister Ahern who has offered retreats and programs with The Upper Room for 25 years. She noted that the door has always been open to all.

“We have welcomed so many people to the gifts of contemplative experiences with God, people who have struggled in their personal lives and offered wonderful healing programs,” she said. “We were always on the cutting edge of Catholic spirituality,” she said, noting that when COVID struck with its “fear and confusion, we all did spiritual direction on Zoom and FaceTime.”

Sister Christensen, co-director for 30 years, shared how the center, located on the campus of Holy Innocents Parish, has offered a place of respite. Its 15 guest bedrooms, meeting rooms and chapel open onto grounds and gardens that lend themselves to contemplation and healing, she said. The grounds evolved in cooperation with the parish, with efforts of volunteers and contributions of faithful including that of a labyrinth for meditation.

“When you see people out there walking ... you see it as a beautiful gift,” said Sister Christensen. “We put in many happy years here. We have many wonderful friends and supporters. These are the people we are going to miss.”