By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — For half of a century, the hallowed grounds, chapel and rooms in and around the La Salette Center for Christian Living have been a Spiritual haven, a source for Spiritual renewal, and a beginning of a new Spiritual life in Christ for countless Catholics and non-Catholics who made the commitment to put their hearts and souls in the hands of the hundreds of priests, Brothers, Sisters, and lay people who have ministered there.
September 19 marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the center, the dream of La Salette Father René Sauvé, founder and Superior of La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, and La Salette Father Giles Genest.
Ground was broken for a 60-room retreat house in August of 1963. One year later, in August 1964, Father Genest was named the retreat house’s first director. On September 19 of that year, two La Salette Brothers professed perpetual vows in the retreat house chapel, and the following day, the doors to the new center were opened for a public open house attended by hundreds of area faithful.
It didn’t take long for the retreat house to launch into its mission of providing a quiet, holy space for public and private Spiritual retreats of many, many types.
In October 1964 the inaugural event was a family weekend retreat sponsored by the Christian Family Movement, attended by 32 adults and 42 children. In a booklet published by the National Shrine of Our Lady La Salette it said, “All weekend long, Father Genest and La Salette Father Arthur Bourgeois (assistant director) played roles of Retreat Master and rocking babies to sleep.”
Since that wonderful weekend, the retreat house has seen thousands of people pass through its doors following a day, a weekend, or a week of prayer, tears, Spiritual relief and healing, laughter, and an experience of the presence of Christ in their lives.
Over the last five decades the center has been home to family retreat weekends; Cursillo weekends; Teach the Children Well programs; Marriage Encounters; high school retreats, Emmaus retreats; retreats that were directed, guided, seasonal, and specialized for mother-daughters, father-son, women only, men only, married couples, single people, divorced/widowed/separated, religious, A.A., and Charismatic renewals.
Add to that the countless workshops; renown speakers, catechists and religious; and special private retreats by persons or groups who rented the house, the center can be regarded as nothing but holy ground.
Last September, retreat house director La Salette Father Cyriac C. Mattathilanickal said, “The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai: ‘You shall treat this 50th year as Sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family. This 50th year is your year of jubilee.’ (Lev 25:10).
“I like to declare, as Moses did, a jubilee year. It is a time to rejoice. It is a time to celebrate. It is a time to count one’s blessings. It is a time to be grateful. It is a time to return to the family. It is a time to return to the basics, the origins of our home away from home. Mary, at La Salette, called us to return to her Son Jesus through prayer, Penance and zeal.
“Please do come home to La Salette, visit with us, stay for a while, discover your true self in God, rejoice with God and with us.”
Father Mattathilanickal told The Anchor that “more than 100,000 people have benefited from the programs at the retreat house over the last 50 years.”
He said that in the early days, the Cursillo movement was very active at the center. “Now the demographics are changing and there are more ethnic groups that want and need Spiritual retreats and programs here,” he added. “While the Cursillo program has moved from La Salette, it’s still very active here in the Spanish and Vietnamese communities. These communities also utilize the center for family retreats now.”
Father Mattathilanickal said that the center serves Haitians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Filipinos, Indians, and Spanish faithful.
He also told The Anchor that the Retreat Center hopes to promote a greater awareness of the Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling available there. “We have some very capable and well-trained people who minister in Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling,” he said.
Dorothy Levesque, one of those experienced counselors and retreat masters, told The Anchor, “The first word I thought of when I started working here after 25 years in the Providence Diocese was ‘peace.’ And I see the peace I feel coming into the people as they first walk in the doors at the retreat center for a retreat or program.”
Levesque has run retreats for divorced and separated individuals, youth, weekend and day retreats, and ministers with Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling. “To me, this is like a safe place. Often people come here hurting and angry and with the insecurities that life can deal out. For a weekend or a day, there is a release of those hurts. They are able to let go and receive the peace that Jesus wants to give them.
“As long as I have been ministering like this, that still feeds me. More than I can feed them.”
Currently, the 50-year-old building is receiving a make-over with a renovation project for all the boarding rooms — new carpets, beds and curtains. Next year the private bathrooms will receive an overhaul.
A special Mass, open to the public, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Retreat Center will take place on October 12 at 10 a.m. at the Shrine church. That will be followed by a social and dinner for invitees who have been instrumental in financially supporting the Retreat House.
“This Retreat House is part of our ministry as La Salette Fathers and Brothers,” Father Mattathilanickal said. “We try to keep all retreats, public or private, affordable. We are not here to make money, just to keep the house maintained and functioning.”