Two Religious Teachers Filippini sisters from Morning Star House of Prayer, Ewing, participate in an online retreat. Courtesy photo
Two Religious Teachers Filippini sisters from Morning Star House of Prayer, Ewing, participate in an online retreat. Courtesy photo
As physical, emotional and spiritual recovery from the pandemic continues, retreat ministries around the Trenton Diocese and beyond are welcoming faithful to come “apart and rest” after the challenges of the past year.

Retreatants are apt to encounter different and perhaps deeper experiences of “being with oneself in the quiet,” said Redemptorist Father John Collins, director of the San Alfonso Retreat House in Long Branch.

He noted that state and federal health mandates beginning in mid-March 2020 brought the end of in-person retreats until mid-July in San Alfonso. Upon reopening, the retreat house was able to welcome up to 50 people. Located on six acres along the Atlantic Ocean, San Alfonso is capable of hosting up to 12,000 participants a year.

As with other retreat centers – including Maris Stella Retreat and Conference Center, Harvey Cedars; Morning Star House of Prayer, Ewing; Francis House of Prayer, Allentown, and The Blue Army Shrine, Asbury (Warren County) – San Alfonso has developed strict health and safety protocols since the start of the pandemic. Face masks are required inside at all times and social distancing is mandatory indoors and out.

In 2021, the number of participants is still greatly reduced, but the Redemptorists are “anticipating a busy season,” Father Collins said. There is a full schedule that includes retreats for women, men, married couples, clergy and religious, days of recollection and a summer clergy institute.

“What matters most in the retreat house ministry is that we strive to provide a space where people at any stage of life can come and listen to the deeper meaning of life. The people have been cooperative and appreciative of the protocols that have been implemented even in the weariness of it all,” Father Collins said.

Similarly, Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth Patricia Dotzauer, assistant administrator and program director for Maris Stella, said guests who visit the oceanside retreat house can expect a safe environment. “We continually evaluate and see what is needed and adjust accordingly,” she said, explaining that staff adhere to federal and diocesan safety guidelines.

She outlined the retreat house’s in-person program running now through late November. Offerings include preached, silent directed and private retreats and days of recollection. Among the topics: identifying current transition in one’s life and becoming aware of God’s transforming grace.

While virtual programming is under development in San Alfonso and Maris Stella, online retreats have been utilized at other retreat facilities since last spring.

At Francis House of Prayer, located in the countryside of Western Monmouth County, virtual programming was already an option when last year’s pandemic shut-down order was issued.

“We went immediately to Zoom. We didn’t skip a beat,” said the director, Sister of St. Joseph Marcella Springer. “We couldn’t use the building, but we didn’t lose any of the programs. By June, we could [welcome] people [in the retreat house] because we have private bathrooms.”

Francis House retreatants can attend online or in person, choosing from among 22 monthly programs including one-on-one conversations with a spiritual director, and opportunities to learn and practice contemplative prayer. There are facilities for six overnight retreatants or up to 25 guests for daytime programs.

At Morningstar House of Prayer, “We’re doing a lot by Zoom,” said Filippini Sister Josephine Aparo, the director. “We have a good schedule for face time.”

At the retreat facility, which is tucked away behind the Villa Victoria Academy campus on the banks of the Delaware River, days of recollection can be scheduled. Hours for Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament are available by appointment, and spiritual direction is online or in person, she said.

“When the weather gets really nice, we’re outside,” she said, explaining that the staff can put up a tent for larger groups.

Scheduling is flexible, she continued. “We do more by word of mouth and by appointment.”

The Fatima Retreat Center and Blue Army Shrine, meanwhile, sponsors two major retreats a year – one in Advent and one in Lent, said Dorothy Carollo, manager of the Shrine and the World Apostolate of Fatima. Her husband, David, is the executive director of the World Apostolate of Fatima USA.

Throughout the year, northwestern New Jersey’s 150-acre landmark – with an outdoor pavilion, shrines and chapels constructed to mirror beloved holy sites – welcomes retreat groups and individuals for prayer and contemplation, daily Mass and Adoration. All Masses are livestreamed for those who cannot attend in person, she said.  

“We are blessed to have an outdoor setting,” Carollo said, noting that seating in the 1,500 capacity of the under-the-roof pavilion is currently limited to 750 with every other row sectioned off. When people come here, they are very happy to find that we are outdoors.”