Acknowledging that all things eventually reach the end of life, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph have decided to deconstruct the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center.
The Retreat Center has operated since August 1983, when it took over the buildings that occupied Mount Saint Joseph Academy, the all-female high school that opened in 1874. The Academy graduated its last class in the spring of 1983. The Diocese of Owensboro did not have a retreat center until the Ursuline Sisters decided to open one. Since 1989, the Retreat Center has also been the Spiritual Life Office for the diocese.
The “building” is actually a number of buildings that were added throughout the years when the Academy was growing. The original building was constructed by Father Paul Joseph Volk in 1874, to be run by five Ursuline Sisters of Louisville who traveled by flatboat down the Ohio River to open the Academy. It is one of the oldest buildings in Daviess County. Additions were built in 1882, 1904 and 1962. A major renovation occurred in 1996-97, which included adding the glass-enclosed façade that serves as the entrance to the Retreat Center and provided space for an elevator.
The bricks used by Father Volk for the initial building were made from soft clay and are known as the “miracle bricks” in Ursuline lore. This story was recounted in “Born to Lead,” the book about the early days in Maple Mount written by Sister Eugenia Scherm.
“When the kiln of brick which Father Volk had burned was opened and the masons were on hand to begin the building, the bricks were soft and unfit for use: the men returned home expecting not to begin work until another kiln was burned. The priest was silent; he was seen about dusk passing around the kiln praying. He had gathered some straw and bush lying near which he put under the kiln and then lighted it. This subterfuge was no doubt to conceal the miracle which he knew God would not deny in this emergency, as the brief flash of fire had not sufficient heat to have any positive effect on the kiln.
“However, Father Volk called the workmen back; they returned more in respect for the good priest (everybody respected him) than in hopes of finding the very bricks which were soft and unfit for use the day before, hard and safe to be used in the large 2 1/2 stories, 74 x 34 feet building to be erected. The men lost no time to begin the erection of the building, which is still standing today.”
Those original bricks are now disintegrating, and the foundation of the building is crumbling, which would be extremely expensive to repair. It’s not just the oldest parts of the building that are in need. The fire suppression system and the heating and cooling systems – both installed during the 1996-97 renovation – all need replacing.
The Ursuline Sisters recognize that their many supporters expect the Sisters to be good stewards of their donations. This money is given to support the Sisters in their ministries and to care for their needs. As good stewards of these funds, the Sisters did not believe it was wise to spend an extensive amount of money to maintain buildings. While the Sisters love the history and spirit of these buildings, the spirituality of the Retreat Center has always been about the message, and that message will continue.
“We will look at possibilities for the future of the retreat ministry,” said Sister Amelia Stenger, congregational leader for the Ursuline Sisters. “We need time to investigate the needs of the Diocese and surrounding areas. In 1983 when the Academy closed, we began something new. Now, we must look to the future again and decide what God is calling us to do.”
The decision was an emotional one for the Ursuline Sisters, many of whom graduated from the Academy. Sister Amelia is a 1967 graduate, and also served 13 years as director of the Retreat Center.
“Our wonderful, historic building has reached the end of its life,” she said. “The oldest building is 147 years old and several of the others are at least 115 years old. We had engineers and architects evaluate the buildings. The cost to repair would be extreme. There is nothing we can do to make the bricks better. All things come to the end of life. It has served its purpose well. Father Volk probably didn’t expect them to last this long.”
The Sisters are relying on the wisdom of their founder, Saint Angela Merici, who said in her Last Legacy, “And if, according to times and circumstances, the need arises to make new rules or do something differently, do it prudently and with good advice.”
The Retreat Center closed on March 13, 2020, when the rest of the Maple Mount campus was shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not having people in the building has hastened its decline, Sister Amelia said. The Retreat Center staff adapted during the pandemic to offer programming online and is offering some programming at parishes.
The building is especially nostalgic for the more than 800 alumnae of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, many of whom return each spring for an all-class reunion. Alumnae Weekend was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and delayed this year until Aug. 28-29, when the banquet will be held in the Mount auditorium/gym. The gym is not affected by this decision and will remain available for programs.
Problems with the building were first discovered during an ongoing review of all buildings on campus. Architects and engineers advised the Sisters on what the building needed and its costs. Major decisions affecting ministry are discussed and voted on when the entire community gathers during the summer for their Community Days. The vote by the Sisters to deconstruct the Retreat Center was held July 9, 2021.
A timeline to deconstruct the building has not been determined, but it will likely not happen until 2022.
The Center is only one of the ministries of the Ursuline Sisters. Sisters continue to serve in seven states and in Chile, South America.