A man walks toward the 14th station of the cross at the former St. Francis Friary in Burlington during an Oct. 21 open house. The property will be renovated and turned into a retreat center. (Submitted photos)

On Saturday, Oct. 21, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest held an open house to show plans for its future retreat center.

The former St. Francis Friary property, 2457 Browns Lake Drive, Burlington, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The institute has a nearly $10 million plan, which includes purchasing the property, renovating the site and creating a gathering place for religious followers and others “wishing to retreat from the world.”

Hundreds of Catholics and other visitors toured the facility to learn about the institute and its plans. They also plan to invite the public to Masses, youth camps, retreats, and other events.

More than a year after Bear Real Estate unveiled plans for building homes and apartments on the property, the institute purchased the nearly 100-year-old residential complex for $3.5 million.

The institute completed the purchase of the 100-acre property in May, leaving 15 acres for the Franciscan Friars to maintain a place of residence.

Based in Italy, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest is a Catholic society of apostolic life recognized by the Vatican in 2008. It has a presence in 11 states and its U.S. office is in Chicago.

A society of apostolic life is a group of men or women within the Catholic Church who have come together for a specific purpose and live fraternally. It is regarded as a form of consecrated or religious life, but members do not take vows

Excited to see so many visitors coming through the future Sacred Heart Retreat Center, Canon Matthew Talarico, who is one of the institute leaders in charge of work in the United States, said he was happy to see so many people who love the space and have great memories of the former monastery and friary.

“We are happy to have this place and are grateful to purchase it from Bear Development,” he said. “Once they got into this and saw the costs for creating an independent living facility, development costs, utilities and other building projects, they thought if there was a better way to preserve it, it made sense to sell it. So, it was a win-win for all.”

Looking forward to seeing the progress in the buildings and on the grounds, Canon Talarico said they feel like they are “standing on the shoulders of giants hoping to see further.”

“We are cognizant of the time and effort people have put in there and how much this place means to so many. We are here to learn,” he said. “I enjoy hearing how so many stories connect to this place. We are hoping to create something beautiful for God and to uplift souls to heaven. I am currently based in Chicago, but I plan to come up here from time to time.”

Formerly the highlight of the property, the building’s main church was a stark contrast to its former glory. The statuary, pews, altar and organ were missing, and instead, visitors walked into a large dusty room with stained-glass windows.

Abbe Jeffrey Walton, Clerical Oblate (consecrated brother) of the Institute of Christ the King, said most visitors are shocked to see the deterioration of the former friary, but no one has occupied the building since 2019.

“The main property was built in the 1930s and an addition was made in the 1950s. Prior to us receiving the property, it was the Franciscan noviate who lived here. Young men would come and study philosophy here from the whole Franciscan province,” said Abbe Walton, as he brought his group into the stripped-down church building.

The facility has 70 rooms designated for retreatants to sleep in, but the number of rooms will change to accommodate the installation of private bathrooms in each room. Currently, there are only common bathrooms on the floors.

“We will have to sacrifice some rooms for the renovation, and we aren’t sure how many yet. A lot will be determined when we meet with the architect and open the walls,” said Abbe Walton. “When we have that completed, it will allow us to have co-ed retreats. We do hope, though, in the spring to have small retreats with up to 20 people, depending on what we can accomplish here.”

A private chapel is set up on the third floor for the priests and other religious to pray Mass and the Divine Office. The main church will be completed in phase three.

“We were hoping to have that part finished in the summer of 2024, but all of that will depend on financing and what we have to do as far as renovations,” said Abbe Walton. “That will be open for public liturgy once that is done.”

A consensus among visitors was gratitude that they were able to walk through the property before the renovations began, so they could remember what it was like and get a sense of what was required to complete the project.

“This is a super important part of the Institute, Burlington and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” said Abbe Walton. “We want this to be a place where clergy can always come; the doors will always be open to clergy. We want this to be a place of retreat, a place to be restored and regrounded in the Lord.”

The Institute is asking for donations of funds to help with the renovations. Visit https://institute-christ-king.org/retreatcenter for more information.