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Helping people grow - often in silence

FRONTENAC — Mike Kieffer's vision for Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center 's future begins with a $2.5 million capital campaign, but the center's vision of what it is remains the same.

The new director of the retreat center set amid woods connected to Frontenac State Park, hopes to begin that campaign in 2012 so it can increase its endowment fund by $1 million. The rest of the money raised would go to upgrade rooms with complete bathrooms, bring the elevator up to code and do other work.

In the meantime, Kieffer would like to see the ornate chapel again used for weddings and maybe build hermitages in a remote part of the campus for places people to live in silence. Its most recent addition was to its staff — Sr. Margaret Galiardi became the new spiritual director in early August.

Though Kieffer is looking for money to improve the center, the vision statement for the center itself remains the same — Where God is Center and the World is Welcome.

That's the most important thing, he said. He just wants to add programs.


The center was an Ursuline Sisters girls boarding school begun in 1891. The large stone dormitory with the chapel was built in 1946. In 1969, however, lightning struck the school's bell tower and started the wooden school on fire, destroying it.

A few years later, Villa Maria became a retreat center for religious groups as well as corporations or families. Because it was once run by Catholic nuns, people assume it's only available for religious groups, said Kieffer, who formerly worked at a Catholic school in Lake City. It's not, it's open to all, as the vision says.

In 1998, the center added Ursuline Hall as a separate building for retreats, complete with a fireplace, modern audio-visual equipment and air conditioning.

The 70-acre campus has more than two main buildings, he said. Behind them are a large area for family camping, some large camping cabins, a labyrinth and a prairie.

Villa Maria is more than facilities, Kieffer said. He often hears it described as holy ground, a peaceful place for quieting one's inner self.

"I wish we had words for spiritual experiences," he said.

His first move before any campaign is to get out the word about the center, he said. One thing would be a better Web page. Another thing he'd like is a marketing director because right now, much of the word about Villa Maria comes from the media and word of mouth.

Last year, the center had 4,662 guests; he thinks it could easily handle 6,000. It's now used about two-thirds of the time.


Though it might seem odd that people in the technology-crazy world would want simple hermitages for quiet, "I've had a lot of requests," he said.

"We're here to help people grow in whatever we can accommodate that," Kieffer said.

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