By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor
As Francis House of Prayer, Rancocas, approaches its 45th anniversary, the diocesan retreat house has announced its plans for relocation to a new site in Allentown.
The current Francis House will remain open through the summer for people to visit the grounds, and will be the site of the 45th Anniversary Mass June 9, with a 2 p.m. outdoor liturgy celebrated by Cistercian Father Joseph A. Tedesco, a former priest of the Diocese of Trenton and one of the original Francis House founders.
The anniversary festivities will be three-fold, said St. Joseph Sister Marcy Springer, director of Francis House of Prayer: “The Feast of Pentecost Sunday; the past 45 years of spiritual oasis that Francis House has been at its present site; and the transition to a whole new chapter of life, in a new environment that has so much potential to continue and enlarge the mission of Francis House,” she said.
“Over 4,000 people have visited Francis House over the years,” said Sister Marcy, who has been director for 28 of the house’s 45 years. “It’s very exciting to think about Francis House having a new chapter, and serving the people of the Diocese in an even greater way.”
The decision to move has been a long and painstaking process, with every effort being made to value the ministry of Francis House and preserve its longstanding tradition of offering a site of prayer and contemplation, said Terry Ginther, diocesan executive director of Pastoral Life and Mission.
“For at least 10 years, we’ve had our eyes open, looking for a place that would be suitable for Francis House,” she explained, noting that the popularity of the programs Francis House offers ensures their selling out and an ongoing waiting list. “The hope was that we were going to be able to find a [larger] place.”
Ultimately, Ginther explained, the Diocese was approached by the township, which is under court mandate to comply with fair share housing plans.
“They asked for permission to include the parcel of land on which Francis House sits in the plan that they had to submit to the court,” she said. The plot of land on which Francis House sits is one of the largest in town, which would help the township bring their fair housing plans to fruition. “After much deliberation and consultation with Sister Marcy, we agreed to allow the parcel to be included in their plan, and started looking for a new home for Francis House.”
Sister Marcy, in a letter to friends of Francis House, described the process as a difficult decision – but asked people to pray for those who will find a new home on the retreat center’s grounds.
“We ask God to bless the many men, women and children who will find a new home and new hope on this precious land, which has been such holy ground for us for 45 years,” she wrote. “May it be holy ground for all who follow in our footsteps.”
Because of various regulations and zoning, many of the larger options the Diocese considered proved unsuitable. The new location, found after a visit to nearly 100 other sites, offers many similarities and some improved amenities.
“The new Francis House will have six rooms, with individual bathrooms,” Ginther said. “It also has a first floor bedroom-bathroom combination, making it accessible to those with mobility challenges.” The new location even has a swimming pool for summer retreatants and ample outdoor space, she explained.
The setting, too, was of primary importance, in order to maintain the character of Francis House, which Sister Marcy describes as “a meeting place with God for all the people who come.”
That peace will be reinforced by the relocating of many of Francis House’s beloved outdoor features, including the Portiuncula Chapel, Stations of the Cross and prayer gazebo. Even some of the plantings, if weather and nature permit, will be transferred to the new site.
The Diocese expects a September opening of the new site with a retreat. The newsletter of scheduled events for September at the new site will be available on the website, www.FHOP.org, by July 1.
Pointing to the more diocesan-central location of Allentown, Ginther noted its improved accessibility for those living in the western portion.
“We think that this sets Francis House up to be able to serve Catholics in the Diocese for the next 45 years,” she said.