By Will Shaw with Fr. Sal Gonzalez, OMI
The Missionary Oblates have been preaching retreats at King’s House in Belleville, Illinois since 1951. In the past few years, they found themselves with a difficult choice to make regarding the beloved facility. After 72 years, and just one partial renovation that took place many years ago, the building needed updating for today’s needs, especially to make it more accessible to individuals with mobility issues.
People these days bring more luggage and personal items to retreats than before. The bedrooms were much too small and public area space was limited. An engineer was called in to look over the building and make recommendations. The response was: “it would be more cost-effective to tear down the building and start over.”
Meanwhile, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, a much larger facility built for large groups of people was under-utilized. Resting on 200 acres, the Shrine’s full-service restaurant had been closed for two years, the on-site motel with more than 50 full-sized rooms was mostly empty and the Shrine‘s devotional areas, outdoor amphitheater and indoor Church of Our Lady of the Snows needed more pilgrims.
So, since King’s House was in need of more space, and the Shrine was in need of more people, the answer seemed obvious: bring the two facilities together.
Other rooms have been turned into conference rooms decorated and furnished with items from King’s House: the colors, furniture, and familiar artwork, will help people feel right at home. Two banquet rooms have been transformed into a chapel that looks very much like the former King’s House chapel. People will recognize the Bro. Mel Meyer artwork on the walls, along with the ambo, tabernacle, and altar, so there is much that will be familiar in this new and larger space. Plus, the whole facility is accessible to people with disabilities
For right now, there are 39 double-occupancy rooms though no one is required to share a room. By the end of the year there will be 54 which will provide a total of 118 beds. Since King’s House serves the St. Louis metropolitan area, many find it more convenient to commute to retreats daily from home and they are welcome to do so.
The chapel comfortably holds 75 people, and the conference room normally holds 70, but if needed, the break-out rooms can be opened to accommodate up to 250 people. Each meeting room has its own audio-visual equipment to serve that individual group.
All employees from King’s House were invited to come to the Shrine, so all the hospitality of King’s House featuring great food and friendly, helpful employees will continue at the new King’s House at the Shrine.
Fr. Sal said the retreats will be familiar as well: “Our niche is our quiet retreats, the niche for our ministry is our preached quiet retreats. The preached retreats have a theme and are presented multiple times throughout the year. The preaching teams are made up of Oblates and Lay women, so each retreat, men’s, and women’s, are presented by one Oblate and one Lay Woman.
We also have a great group of Lay and Religious Women who make up our spiritual directors serving our directed retreats during the summer. Finally, we also feature week-long preached retreats which, for the most part, have been preached by Lay and Religious women. We also have several Spanish-speaking Oblates on staff, so more Spanish-language Retreats will be offered.”
Should anyone fear that bringing King’s House to the Shrine will minimize the ministries which have been going on at the Shrine for many years, Fr. Sal is quick to say that King’s House and the Shrine will operate together, yet independently. “The Shrine will continue its own spiritual programming. It has its ordinary ministry, which is Mass and confessions, and then the many spiritual programs that it has: Days of Prayer, Presentations on the Bible, the Annual Novena, Way of Lights in Advent. It will all continue with no competition between facilities, just inclusion.”
Having a Retreat Center at a Shrine is nothing new for the Oblates. Since the Founder’s time, Oblates have staffed Shrines which have also been places for retreats. According to Fr. Sal: “Their ministry was two-fold, to take care of pilgrims who came for the day, and to host pilgrims who came for retreats. The first seven Marian Shrines the Oblates took on during the time of St. Eugene de Mazenod also were places of retreat.”
Here at the Shrine we have so many devotional spaces. We have Lourdes Grotto, Guadalupe at Tepeyac, Christ the King Chapel, the outdoor Stations of the Cross, so many devotional sites, and walking paths that if people want places to walk and to pray, to meditate, there are many. It was just a matter of time before this Shrine also became a place of retreat.”