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Detours lead to decades in joyful ministry
Father Ed Sthokal, SJ, had never considered becoming a retreat director; he never even specifically trained for it. The plan for the young Jesuit was to teach English literature, perhaps go on to run a university department in the field.
So how did he end up spending 58 years as a retreat director at Demontreville Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minnesota?
Like a walk through a labyrinth, he says.
“When I was choosing my final stage of training in English literature, I was looking at studying at Oxford, maybe Cambridge,” Fr. Sthokal recalls. “But I balked. Although I had been heading in that direction, I realized it wasn’t for me.”
He had been ordained in 1954, finished the theology period of his Jesuit formation in 1956, served as associate pastor at Milwaukee’s Church of the Gesu, and then taught English and theology for a few years at Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. But when the time came to move on for further study in his field, it wasn’t for him. So, Fr. Sthokal was assigned — temporarily — to work at Demontreville.
“I don’t think I had ever heard of the place at the time. Now I think it’s the best retreat house in the country, of course,” he chuckles. “I hadn’t even given a men’s retreat until I arrived there. But it turned out to be the perfect fit.”
Reflecting on the process, he adds, “A lot of things had to happen. Everything that came before was — unbeknownst to me — preparing me for work at Demontreville. Detours merged into focus at a place I hadn’t even known existed. It might have seemed a circuitous route, but all of my experiences led to decades in a joyful ministry.”
Over the years, his ministry has taken him to many states — from Florida to Colorado to Hawaii—and other parts of the world—including Germany, Ireland, France, Greece, and the Holy Land—as well as activities, including golfing, skiing, and raising dogs and horses. Exchanges with other retreat houses landed him in Atlanta, New Orleans, Detroit and more.
“Tough work!” he jokes, adding, “Someone could ask, ‘where did you find the time to give more than 300 retreats at Demontreville?’ But my answer, again, is that everything I did was preparation for another retreat. Ignatius would call it finding God in all things. Teilhard de Chardin would say we find materials for our tasks of collaborating with God in creating and redeeming the world everywhere. While I might have had fewer assignments than many Jesuits, I enjoyed a diversified experience with a rich variety of people in a rich variety of places.”
Fr. Sthokal’s nearly six decades at Demontreville included building — both structures and finances. And they involved many generations of retreatants — each of which was distinct, due in part to changes in society and the Church. “It’s a tremendous place that has been developing in many ways. Now the task is helping young people better understand what retreats are and what they can offer.”
At 95 — and the oldest resident at the St. Camillus Jesuit Community in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin — Fr. Sthokal says some health concerns led to his current assignment, where medical needs can be addressed. Technically, however, he’s never left Demontreville. “I left the place, but not the experiences,” he says. “I have physical, spiritual, and intellectual experiences from there that I carry with me every day.”
|About the Demontreville Retreat House
Each year more than 3,000 men from all walks of life participate in retreats at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House — where the experiences have one theme: “to know, love, and serve God in this world.”
“To really know, love, and serve God, however, one must know oneself,” says the ministry’s website. “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola provide a wonderful method for doing this. They help us see who we are — one loved by God. They help us realize we are called by God to follow Jesus Christ, who became man over 2,000 years ago to show us how to live. He still shows us how to live today.”
The daily schedule includes four or five general conferences of about 30 minutes each, based on the Spiritual Exercises, followed by a free reflection period. Strict silence is maintained, except for an optional recreation time, as “being silent in a beautiful natural setting with no agenda and nowhere to go, waiting, and listening for God to speak are key ingredients for communicating with God.”