Story by Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Amid the sheltering trees and holy spaces on the grounds of Francis House of Prayer, Rancocas, some 300 faithful came together June 9 to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the diocesan retreat house and its coming relocation to a new site in Allentown.
Among them was Sue Latella of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, a frequent visitor to the retreat center since 2009, when a colleague suggested she pay a visit. Once was enough, Latella said, to convince her to return again and again.
“This is a wonderful place of peace,” she said. “It’s a place to let go of the world.’’
For her, such peace includes memories of contemplating the Lord’s creation and his creatures, including one midwinter day when she saw new life sprouting in the middle of a barren soybean field.
“I sat on the field for 45 minutes praying and noting that coming up out of the ground was the beginning of the fruits the Lord has given us,” said Latella. “I realized then that the Lord provides everything you need. I will never forget that sprout in the barren field.”
It’s just one of many memories she plans to bring with her to the “new beginning of Francis House” when it reopens in Allentown in September.
A Bountiful Harvest
The June 9 festivities, which coincided with Pentecost Sunday, commenced with a Mass celebrated by Cistercian Father Joseph A. Tedesco, a former priest of the Diocese of Trenton and one of the original Francis House founders. The Mass was concelebrated by diocesan priests who have had a close affiliation with Francis House over the years.
In his homily, Father Tedesco spoke of Francis House as a center of prayer in which faithful have been able to “enter the journey of the life of Christ in remembrance and renewal and hold onto truth in a deeper way.”
He urged everyone to give thanks “for this place and all that has happened among us from the day it was founded for the community and the sense of connection that so many people, including himself, have experienced there.
Father Tedesco also asked all to reflect on how the community, built over decades, is so much more than a building. “You are Francis House. Francis House is a group of people coming together in faith, a family, a community.”
“We will go forward with boldness and prayer” to the new location, he continued. “People need our call to the Church” and the call to Christ in the world. “Move forth from this holy place and continue the mission.”
Father Tedesco praised Sister of St. Joseph Marcy Springer, director for 28 years, for the “way she guided Francis House and brought us Life in the Spirit,” as she helped faithful see the spirit of the Gospels in a new way.
Addressing those gathered, Sister Marcy said, I hope you will love our new home. … We will do this together. Francis House will continue to thrive, flower and grow.”
A Time to Sow
The need for the transition of Francis House was sparked when the Diocese was approached by the township, which is under court mandate to comply with fair share housing plans. The plot of land Francis House sits on is one of the largest in town and having it will help bring the township into compliance with the statute.
Terry Ginther, diocesan executive director of Pastoral Life and Mission, said the Diocese understood the needs of the township and that great care was taken to find a location that offered the same sense of peace and quiet for those all who visit the new location.
“This is a very special ministry. Some 4,000 people have visited,” said Ginther. “The waiting lists are full of people who love and cherish Francis house. A real effort was made by the Diocese to find a place where they can meet God in silence and prayer and continue to cherish it.”
Sue Ziegler of St. James Parish, Pennington, and Deacon Jeffrey DeFrehn of St. Joan of Arc Parish, are looking forward to that experience.
Ziegler began attending programs in Francis House about 25 years ago, after Sister Marcy gave a morning reflection at the parish.
“Francis House has been my spiritual home for all these years. When I heard the news, I felt sad,” she said. But, “when I heard Father Tedesco during the Mass say, ‘We are Francis House,’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s true.’”
Deacon DeFrehn said he has treasured the time he and his wife, Maureen, have spent at Francis House where he became certified in spiritual direction. He will miss the peace and solitude and cherish the rich memories and relationships. “But I am also looking forward to the new holy ground.”