By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published January 6, 2011
The Jesuit Retreat Center at Ignatius House has now been a staple for Georgians for 50 years, providing sacred space for reflection, prayer and spiritual direction to those who seek to escape the hustle and bustle of life in an increasingly noisy world. These decades of ministry, as well as those who have made the ministry possible, were honored at a celebration of the facility’s 50th anniversary on Dec. 18.
Hidden away among tall trees atop a large hill, the retreat center can easily be missed while driving along Riverside Drive north of Atlanta’s Interstate 285 perimeter. But just a short trek up the winding driveway reveals a quiet, serene environment where many have come seeking spiritual growth.
“Ignatius Retreat House has been serving the community of Georgia as well as people from other states as a center for spiritual growth and a place to relax and enjoy peace and quiet,” said Maria Cressler, executive director of the retreat center, to a crowd gathered in the center’s chapel at the anniversary Mass. “Catholics, other Christians and those of other faiths come here to renew or deepen their relationship with God and others.”
“This is the great legacy and dream that Suzanne Spalding Schroder began over 50 years ago,” Cressler said. “Today . . . on the anniversary of Suzanne Schroder’s death, we come together to celebrate the fulfillment of her dream and vision: to establish a retreat center for the people of Georgia.”
Schroder’s dream of providing a place of prayer and reflection in Georgia led her to donate 20 acres of land to the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province in the 1950s to use for the achievement of this goal. She offered her own home and property to help others find peace, and her spirit of giving can still be found on the grounds today.
On Dec. 18, 1960, one year after her death, the newly constructed retreat center was blessed and dedicated as the Suzanne Spalding Schroder Memorial that was to be known officially as the Ignatius Retreat House.
A donation by the New Orleans Jesuit Province of $450,000 as well as donations by Atlantans and others made possible a two-story brick building with 49 bedrooms with private baths, a conference room, small kitchen and dining area, plus offices. No permanent dining room or kitchen were built at the time because of the lack of funds and suitable space.
In 1999, the first phase of a capital campaign began to fund the addition of a larger dining room, kitchen and other renovations to the original building. Construction began in October 2000 and was completed with a blessing ceremony in 2001 of the new Ignatius House. Additional donations in early 2004 helped to create a patio between the dining and conference rooms at the same time that a fountain was upgraded.
Phase II of the capital campaign, which is still underway, initially provided a separate and larger chapel and will provide new space for offices and a bookstore. The new St. Ignatius Chapel was dedicated in 2005 by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
The golden anniversary celebration was attended by long-time friends and newcomers to Ignatius House, as well as by several Schroder family members. Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis Zarama served as the main celebrant for the Mass, which was concelebrated by Jesuits currently serving as retreat directors and the New Orleans provincial superior, Jesuit Father Mark Lewis.
In his homily, Bishop Zarama recalled his first encounters with Jesuits during his time growing up in Colombia, South America. He remembers the Jesuit retreat house located just a few blocks from his childhood home and told the crowd it was there that he first felt a call to the priesthood.
“The Jesuit retreat house was the first place the Lord opened up my heart to the possibility of being a priest,” the bishop said. “The reason why I am here in Atlanta is because of the Jesuits.”
Bishop Zarama described Ignatius House as a place where people can be silent and listen to the voice of God, a necessary part of one’s spiritual life. He marveled at the history of the center and generosity of its benefactors saying, “The Lord always finds a way to serve the people.”
Following the Mass, the crowd gathered in the dining room for sweet and savory treats and to share their memories of the last 50 years. Among those in attendance was Betty Smith, a benefactor of Ignatius House who was present for the first retreat held on the grounds some 50 years ago.
“This is a very special place,” she said. “I am so pleased and proud of the way things are going.”
“I love the way (Ignatius House) is opening up to not just the Roman Catholic community but the entire community,” she added.
Offering silent retreats to men and women, regardless of faith, as well as focused retreats and personal spiritual direction, Ignatius House continues to be a vibrant ministry within the Archdiocese of Atlanta, bringing people from across the Southeast an opportunity to quiet themselves and seek a closer relationship with God. Among its diverse offerings are some 20 silent retreats a year based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, another nearly 20 retreats with a special focus, additional retreats in Spanish, as well as days and evenings of reflection, special programs and individual personalized retreats. It is a ministry of which the staff is proud and one they hope will continue for at least another 50 years.
“Today we come together to celebrate this great gift and 50 years of serving Atlanta, and we do so in the best way we know how, by celebrating the greatest gift of all—through the Liturgy of the Eucharist,” said Cressler to the crowd before the anniversary Mass began.
“It has been a great privilege and joy to have become a part of this incredibly important mission,” Cressler said. “A mission that is inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, rooted in the spirituality of St. Ignatius, Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House provides a sacred setting for retreats and programs of growth and development for people in the contemporary Church and society.”