By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
WHEATLAND — Stepping onto the grounds of Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat for the first time in months, the beauty that Lisa Martin Bellomy experienced was “beyond compare.”
The air seemed sweeter, the sky bluer and the gardens more lush during her late May visit to the retreat center in rural Wheatland. “I just sat there not wanting to leave as I was surrounded by the sounds of wildlife, water lapping and breezes in the trees,” said Bellomy, who serves as communications director for the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM).
The retreat center, a ministry of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, reopened for in-person retreats last month.
The Prairie had been closed for in-person retreats since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, at the request of CHM leadership. “It was really for the protection of the people coming in and the protection of the staff here,” said Sister Margaret Kruse, OSF, the Prairie’s director.
During this time, Prairie staff made improvements to the grounds, including the construction of a new maintenance building. Once it appeared the pandemic would be long term, the Prairie began to offer online retreats. “For myself, having online experiences kept us in touch with each other and provided an opportunity to share faith with each other while we were in isolation. I think that’s a real positive,” Sister Kruse said. Additionally, the virtual format allowed people from all over the country to participate in retreats, which wasn’t possible before.
Still, she said the experience wasn’t quite the same. “One of the things people kept saying to me was that it was nice to have retreats available online, but they missed being out here where they could be close to nature and interact with each other. That personal contact really made a difference.”
Sister Lynn Mousel, CHM, facilitated a virtual Spirit Days event during the pandemic. While she appreciated the ease of preparation and the fact that participants did not have to travel, “there certainly isn’t the same feeling of connection compared to being in person, especially for a group that doesn’t know each other. I think the retreat leader has to be especially gifted to create that sense of connection online.”
Last fall, during a drop in COVID cases, the Prairie hosted monthly, outdoor Masses, but everything else continued to take place online. The Prairie reopened in stages this spring, with precautions —first to walkers, then to individual retreatants. Masses and in-person retreats resumed in May.
People’s interest in returning to the Prairie became evident quickly. Several in-person retreats have sold out — partially because of participant caps, but also because of a “greater desire of people to come back,” Sister Kruse said. The recent retreats have also attracted newcomers and those who have not been to the Prairie in years. “That, too, says to me that people are eager to experience some quiet time and receive input from different people.”
Pat Shea, a longtime presenter who leads monthly Come to the Quiet retreats, observed and experienced “a strong sense of gratitude and joy being able to gather at the Prairie” during the event last month. “Wearing masks and keeping physical distance helped us feel safe, and supported in care and respect.”
Sister Mousel returned to the Prairie May 22 to participate in an “Act of Power” retreat. “It was wonderful to be back in person again,” she said. “There was a feeling of excitement and energy. Many of us in attendance were just starting to get out past our ‘family bubble’ again.” She relished the opportunity to be back on the grounds, surrounded by fresh blooms and experiencing “a sense of peace, calm and connection with our creator.”
Jane Cox, who has spent “a lot of time” at the Prairie over the years, both as a volunteer and program participant, said she is thrilled to be able to enjoy the Prairie safely, once again. “The opportunity to speak privately with individuals during breaks, go outside and share a delicious meal with others; these are treasured experiences. They enhance the program.”
Shea believes Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat “truly graces so many of us who are able to spend a day or more in that sacred space.” The overriding sense of abiding holy peace “is palpably present as soon as you begin driving up that gravel road.”
A favorite place
Evalee Mickey, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a CHM associate, began attending retreats at Our Lady of the Prairie more than 20 years ago. She lauds Sister Margaret Kruse, OSF, for creating a diverse lineup of retreats to draw in people of all genders, age groups and interests to the beauty of the Prairie.
“The Prairie is one of my very favorite places as it is peaceful, beautiful and inviting for anyone who especially likes the outdoors, but then who doesn’t?” she said. “There has never been a time in taking someone to the Prairie for the first time that they haven’t felt drawn back to it.”
Mickey once took a visiting vicar general and his interpreter to the retreat center. “They wanted to explore everything: the labyrinth, the Stations of the Cross, and take in the unique beauty of it all. Even though we were on a time schedule, I could hardly convince them to get back into the car.”