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Fr. Walser at Calvary Retreat Center
Father Gilbert Walser, C.P. at Calvary Retreat Center in Shrewsbury, MA

The Closing of Calvary Retreat Center in Shrewsbury

by Mr. Ernest R. Rivard


In the months preceding the May 2008 Province Assembly of the Passionist Province of St. Paul of the Cross (eastern United States), it became evident that there was sentiment of a need to move toward consolidation of ministries and properties. The potential of Calvary Retreat in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts to be on "the list" for closure became increasingly likely to us associated with the day to day operations there as those months progressed. With this in mind, I scheduled a private retreat for a week at the new children's hospital in Haiti. On staff there was Passionist Father and doctor Richard Frechette who had had a long-time association with Calvary Retreat. I wanted to go to Haiti and spend time reflecting on my ministry as retreat director at Calvary. I wanted to think about my future, and pray for the approaching Assembly. I sought strength for what was to come. As I later expressed in my statement at the Assembly, the retreat prepared me to "surrender" and "let go." These were the movements necessary for me and the province to find new freedom and hope.

When the May 2008 Assembly commenced, I was prepared for the decisions that were to be made. It did not make it any easier emotionally, for saying goodbye to dear people and places brings the ache of sentiment when there is mutual care. Yet, for me, the element of surprise was not there and that helped me move through the moment. Once the vote for closure was taken, I was able to turn my thoughts to the planning that would be necessary for a dignified closure. I knew this would be important particularly for some of the employees and retreatants who would be taken by surprise by the decision. I also knew it would be essential for all those who valued the history, life and faith that had taken place because of Calvary Retreat Center.

After the Assembly, there seemed to be a myriad of details that would need attention to prepare for closure. While there had been closures previously in the province, it seemed there was no clear pattern to follow. I was very appreciative of Passionist Provincial Father Joseph R. Jones who remained extremely supportive and open to my many questions throughout the process. His Provincial Council members, as well as his secretary and staff, were quite helpful too. Bev Erickson, the Province land consultant, and eventually Greg Hampson, the newly hired province CFO, were invaluable in providing organization and attention to detail that was much needed. I found their professionalism and level-headedness helped me to keep a sense of balance through a process that had its moments of pressure. Together, I think we all facilitated a reasonably smooth and dignified transition.

From the time of the formal announcement in May 2008 of Calvary's impending closing, through the final programs and farewell events and services held in the fall, to occasional encounters during the final months before the property sale in May 2009, I found blessing and grace in walking through the process with many of the people concerned. Clearly, not only Passionists, but many people had been influenced by the ministry and Passionist presence in Shrewsbury over four decades. These included retreatants, promoters, employees, committee people, religious, priests and deacons of the diocese, and folks in recovery. While I experienced their sadness in accepting the loss of their "place" where they had found acceptance, consolation, peace, and the freedom and joy of the reconciling cross, I also was amazed to see the maturity of their acceptance as they were well aware of the ways of the world in our times. These were people who not only knew the personal experience of the loss of loved ones, but they also had been touched by the loss of many parishes that had been closed in recent years. They knew the familiar ways of the Church were changing and the closing of Calvary Retreat Center was just one more little indicator of that change. While there was disappointment, I sensed that the core of faith was still meaningful and life-giving for them. They live in the hope that it will flower anew. Sounds like the Easter story, doesn't it?

I have never been more grateful for the gift of Passionist spirituality that has been nourished in me since my first experiences of Passionist life during youth Encounters held at Our Lady of Sorrows Retreat in West Springfield, Massachusetts when I was a teen. Somehow, that spirituality drew me to focus on the way of the cross during that last year at Calvary Retreat. I walked the outdoor Stations, (that now have been moved to the Passionist Immaculate Conception Monastery at Jamaica, New York), several times during those final months while asking for guidance and strength. I often found peace there. At times during the closing process, I could identify with a particular scene from those stations. For example, when a few retreatants came to me after one of our farewell services to express their disappointment at Calvary's loss and their concern for my future, I recalled the women of Jerusalem approaching Jesus on the Way. At various points during the closure, each scene from the Way became vivid for me even to the final moment of handing over the keys to the new owners.

The outdoor Stations at Calvary had a 15th Station: the Resurrection. The charism of St. Paul of the Cross has taught me to live in the hope of that fantastic truth, to learn to accept again and again that God constantly offers a renewing Spirit to us. While the loss of Calvary Retreat is still so recent that I emotionally seem to be in the Station's scene of "waiting in the tomb" for whatever will come next, I have learned to trust that God will not fail us. God loves us too much. Let us live in that love.