The Franciscans of the Holy Cross Commissariat have been very practical people. Among those who have served in this community were men who had practical knowledge of masonry, electrical, plumbing and carpentry.
In the late 1940's they built the retreat house themselves. Fr. Blase Chemazar, OFM, used to tell the story that after classes everyday, the seminary students were responsible for going over to the build site and they had to layout three slabs of terrazo floor before they could enjoy some free time.
The Friars along with volunteer labor did most of the brick work as well as the electrical and plumbing. The original building had only outer rooms, the ones that have windows. The inner part of the building was open to the roof which had clerestory windows that flooded the building with light. They are windows which to this day flood the upstairs chapel so brightly.
The middle portion was used initially by the seminarians as a basketball court. Mt. Assisi High School would bus over students to use the retreat house for gym classes until their own gym was completed. The middle was also used for productions. We were reminded of this when we found an old lighting system control from the 1950s stored in the utility room.
The building had no heat and was used strictly for pilgrimages of people who came from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Kansas. Many of these people were Slovenians who came to visit the Shrine of Mary Help of Christians or Marija Pomagaj as she is known in Slovenian. She is also known as the Brezjanska Marija taking her name from the famous Slovenian Shrine of Brezje.
The Monastery Chapel has an original copy of the painting that was done by Layer and has been displayed in the shrine church of Brezje and our monastery chapel has been lovingly refered to as the American Brezje since the 1920's. The retreat house was originally known as the Baraga Guest House or Baragov Dom in Slovenian. The retreat house was originally dedicated to the Venerable Bishop Frederick Baraga, the first bishop of Marquette, Michigan. The Franciscans of the Holy Cross Commissariat were instrumental in starting the Bishop Baraga Association which is dedicated to his canonization process and continuing his missionary work. A bronze plaque of his image adorns the front wall of the dining hall within the Retreat House. Pilgrims would come to attend services in the monastery chapel and on the grounds.
There were a number of retreat houses in the vicinity and a popular one was run by fellow Franciscans of the Sacred Heart Province at a Monastery called MaysLake in nearby Oakbrook, Illinois. These Franciscans had purchased the estate of Charles Peabody in 1924 soon after his death and they used it as a novitiate, Monastery and training ground as well as a retreat house. Charles Peabody founded the famous Peabody Coal Company.
By the middle 1950s, the demand for retreats was surpassing the capacity of the retreat house at Mayslake so these Franciscans suggested that the Holy Cross Commissariat convert their Baraga Guest House into a year around retreat house. The men of the HCC voted on this and proceeded to convert their building by adding a boiler room to the southwest, building the interior rooms and installing a chapel across the middle taking out the gym. This was a major structural change and they arranged for the contractor who had done extensive work on the school at St. George on the southeast side of Chicago to carry out the conversion.
The first phase of the construction provided heat to the outer rooms. That permitted the rooms to be used in cold weather in 1958. Construction continued with the inner rooms and the chapel. The chapel was dedicated in 1959. One of the Slovenian Womens Union (Now Slovenian Union of America) branches donated the money to have the image of Mary Help of Christians painted on the back wall of the chapel. The chapel was dedicated to Fr. Kazimir Zarkajsek, OFM (the founder of the Holy Cross Commissariat) and Fr. Alexander Urankar, OFM both beloved by the many people who visited the Lemont grounds of the Commissariat. A dedicatory plaque to them is placed over the doors tot he chapel. Donors who contributed to purchase of items for the chapel are listed on a plaque in the chapel. With the new buildout, the name of the retreat house also changed to St. Mary’s Retreat House which was consistent with the name of the monastery and its chapel.
The Sacred Heart Franciscans were correct. There was a demand for retreats. The 1960's through the 1970's saw SMRH used for retreats by mens and women's groups from many parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago as well as the Dioceses of Joliet and Rockford. The retreat house was used by Marriage Encounter groups, Cursillo groups, RCIA groups, as well as other Christian groups. By agreement with the Chancery, the Eucharist was removed from the chapel when other Christian denominational groups held retreats here.
It became a popular retreat house for many Catholic High Schools. Virtually every Catholic HS from the Eisenhower in Chicago to Kankakee held retreats at SMRH. In the 1980s the Slovenian Chorale group, Slovenska Pesem, directed by Fr. Vendelin Spendov, OFM began holding its weekly Sunday practices for over a decade in the dining room. They even watched the 1985 Super Bowl from the dining room of the retreat house,
In 1967, a new ministry was started by Fr. Mark Sedlak, OFM one that was continued by Brother Robert Hocevar, OFM and then Fr. Blase Chemazar, OFM. This was a ministry to Alcoholics Anonymous. Fr. Mark himself found sobriety in AA and he discerned a need for a weekend retreat for the AA community. With the help of fellow priests in the AA program, they created a weekend retreat which focused on the 12 step process.
The AA program itself does not endorse any religious denomination. There is belief that a higher being is necessary to bring hope to an alcoholic to help them to sobriety and maintain that state. The 12 step retreats held in St. Mary’s Retreat House are for AA members who believe that their higher being is God. There are three groups who in 2019 will be celebrating their 51st year of holding retreats in the SMRH. Some of these men split off and formed a group that has meet continuously on a weekly basis since 1967.
Word got out about the beautiful serene grounds of the retreat house, a rural oasis that has to be one of the most beautiful places in northern Illinois. The SMRH also developed a reputation as a spartan place with good food that provides the right atmosphere for spiritual renewal.
Fr. Blase died in April of 2017 and there was a concern that the SMRH would close. The Franciscans have made a commitment to continue this ministry with the help of the Deacons who are members of Hopes on the Way of the Chicago Archdiocese. The house has been cleaned and renovated with the support of volunteers from local parishes and the AA community who have thrown themselves into cleaning, decluttering and providing the needed repairs to a building that sees about 1,000 retreatants a year.