Tucked away in a corner of rural Waukesha, the Schoenstatt Retreat Center is a place where the natural beauty of God’s creation “loosens the soil of the soul” to allow for a shower of divine graces to seep in.
“Nowadays, everybody’s loaded with some anxiety, and therefore seeking out God is not so self-understood; there are many things that tie us down,” said Sr. Isabel Bracero, one of the dozen Schoenstatt sisters who live on the 200-acre property and care for the retreat center. “Very often, we need to first step into the process of loosening the ground of the soul, and that’s what I think this atmosphere does first. It loosens the soil a little bit, so whatever God wants to shower on the soul can really seep in.”
The center in Waukesha is run by the Schoenstatt sisters, adherents of an international Catholic lay movement whose origins date back to 1914, when Fr. Joseph Kentenich, a Pallotine priest in the Rhineland, who, together with several seminarians, dedicated an abandoned cemetery chapel in Schoenstatt, Germany, to the patronage of the Blessed Mother. The Waukesha site is now one of 200 locations in the world to house a replica shrine built in the style of the original cemetery chapel.
“They implored that the Blessed Mother would establish herself there, without an extraordinary presence, simply trusting in the presence of God and in a deep and serious committed cooperation with the life of grace — not just that day, but through constant prayers and sacrifices,” said Sr. Bracero. The term “Schoenstatt” means “beautiful place” in German.
The retreat center is embarking on its 50th jubilee year celebration in 2019, but the Schoenstatt movement’s relationship with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee goes back even further. The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary came to the diocese of Madison in November 1949 but soon moved to a house on Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, where they hosted small retreats. Eventually, the need was seen for a larger space, and the community purchased 200 acres of farmland, forest and wetland in Waukesha in 1963, building a full-service retreat center there in 1969.
The retreat center continues to be staffed by the Schoenstatt sisters living on the grounds, and can accommodate up to 76 overnight guests in 38 double rooms. Amenities include a fireplace, full access to audiovisual equipment, a conference hall, a house chapel, gift shop, smaller breakout rooms, and a cafeteria and dining room that can hold anywhere from 100 to 200 people. Meals are provided by the sisters, who are known for their homemade bread and cookies.
Since 2015, the sisters have been working with the Laudato Si Project, a nonprofit organization founded in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical of the same name. The group has been working to upgrade the center’s natural spaces and creating more natural trails.
At the center, the sisters host both private and public retreats for Catholic and Christian groups. There are specialized retreats for mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and entire families, as well as annual summer camps and monthly “Covenant Sundays” that feature Reconciliation, Mass and formative talks.
Angie Wolfe, a parishioner at St. Anthony in Milwaukee, has participated in Schoenstatt retreats and workshops with her family for the past 13 years.
“My husband took our oldest son to a father/son retreat and twice I’ve taken my girls to the mother/daughter retreats,” she said. “I think what kept us coming back was the peace we felt on the grounds in Waukesha and in the shrine. The family-focused atmosphere that Fr. Kentenich wanted resonated through all the sisters there. We go to Mass there once a month for Covenant Sundays and are always disappointed to leave the peaceful and Christ-like atmosphere.”
Sr. Bracero described the community’s charism as working to provide a “schoenstatt” for their guests — a beautiful place in which to encounter Christ. The movement’s focus is on spiritual formation, and though some of the sisters have a background in formal education, they see their mission as curators of a religious experience rather than instructors. The replica Schoenstatt Shrine is located a short walk from the retreat center and the public is welcome to come and pray there; the Blessed Sacrament is exposed every afternoon.
“We see it all in connection to the spiritual formation, because grace builds on nature, and therefore, we understand that as long as we provide an uplifting atmosphere — good food, beautiful nature, a clean area and all of these details, that is all part of educating the human soul to be open to the grace of God,” said Sr. Bracero.
“The word itself, beautiful place — that is what it is. We find an atmosphere where we can encounter the beauty, goodness, truth of God and the Blessed Mother just by encountering nature. That atmosphere opens people up to let themselves be enriched by the presence of God.”