The Franciscan Friars’ decision to open a retreat center in Wappingers Falls after their seminary was relocated is still looking good 50 years later.
The Mount Alvernia Retreat Center, a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Province of the Immaculate Conception, is fully booked through 2020 as the center prepares to celebrate its golden jubilee Sunday, Sept. 16.
“This celebration is about getting people together,” said Father Thomas Garone, O.F.M., the center’s superior for four years. “It’s going to be a picnic because you have a picnic with your family. Your family comes over in your backyard, chills out, relaxes, feeds themselves and talks. That’s what we hope to do on this anniversary to show the familiarity of family closeness we have with those around us.”
The celebration will begin with a 2 p.m. Mass.
Development of the retreat center grounds dates back to 1893 with the building of the Clyde Estate named for the family that owned the Clyde Steamship Company. In the 1920s, Franciscan Sisters purchased the 245 acres of land, renaming the place Mount St. Clare and the street leading to the center, Delavergne Avenue, after a mountain in Italy called La Verna.
The Franciscan Friars purchased the property for $45,000 in 1944. Two years later, it became a Franciscan seminary for men preparing for the priesthood. In 1951, the present Mount Alvernia building was constructed and became vacated in 1968 when the seminary was relocated to Boston.
Proposals, all denied by the order’s administration, surfaced to build a public school, rent the property to IBM and construct a golf course and clubhouse. The late Father Thomas More Nicastro, O.F.M., who was then residing and conducting weekend retreats at Mount Alvernia, suggested a retreat center.
“Back then, they knew how important it was to have a place where you can be fed spiritually,” Fa- -ther Garone said. “Golf may give you a little bit of ease. Education may sometimes help you and sometimes not. It was their choice and the wisdom of the elderly friars at the time and those words of God who just said, ‘Let this happen.’
“God works in strange ways, too. There is something always put before you. You can either go left or right. Which one are you going to choose? That’s up to you. That’s what they did. It was put in front of them. They took the road less traveled. They were going to keep what they had and build upon it. It worked.”
Since the center opened in 1968, visitors of all faiths have come for retreats from throughout the United States, Canada, Central America, South America, Europe and Asia. Fifty-two rooms, most being double occupancy, are for retreat visitors to stay on the grounds. The center celebrates daily Mass and two Sunday Masses, and offers Bingo in its gymnasium on Monday nights.
“We hope something will change in their life that will move them up one step, make their life more positive, joyful and peaceful,” said Father Garone, one of four priests on the retreat center staff.
Paul and Cindy Latino started attending Sunday Mass at Mount Alvernia 20 years ago and have attended one-day retreats. Now retired, they are among the volunteers assisting the friars at the center. They shared what encourages people to attend retreats and fill a 200-seat chapel for two Sunday Masses.
“It’s what the friars do for you. They make you feel welcome and give you insight into your Catholic faith. They make you think outside the box and make you go out to do things in a spiritual way, The friars keep you wanting to come back for more,” said Paul, a retired teacher who taught at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie for 10 years.
“When I come up here, I feel like I’m at peace. I feel like I can turn my mind totally to prayer and the people I’m praying for. It’s a very special place.”
The Latinos are on a committee for the anniversary celebration Sept. 16.
“This is a well-kept secret that people do not realize, not only the beauty of the retreat center and the grounds up here, but their outreach outside the local community. We’ve become aware of the number of people they’re bringing in and the benefit it is to the area to have a resource like that,” Cindy said.
“It’s such a quiet secret around here that people just don’t know what a real treasure we have here. The opportunity to put ourselves out there with the celebration and say to the local community, ‘Come visit us. Come celebrate with us. We’re excited we’ve been able to do this for 50 years and are looking way beyond to do it for another 200 years. We want to celebrate this milestone and we want all of you to be a part of it.’”