By Mike Gabriele
Mention “Wernersville” to most people and you’ll probably get a blank stare, even from Pennsylvanians who don’t need Google Maps to identify the rolling hills and farmland west of Reading. But mention “Wernersville” to Jesuits of the former Maryland Province who entered the Society of Jesus prior to 1993 and prepare yourself for an earful of memories. To them, Wernersville is where it all began.
It’s where they arrived to begin their formation—the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues—their first steps on a journey to become Jesuit priests and brothers. Or mention “Wernersville” to the thousands of “pilgrims” who over the last 50 years have sought a closer relationship with God at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, and you’ll hear endless accounts of how this picturesque retreat house was the place they more fully encountered the Lord.
This August, nearly 100 years after its benefactors Nicholas and Genevieve Brady gifted the grounds and buildings for the novitiate’s first Jesuit novices in 1930, “Wernersville” is closing. During WWII and in the years that followed, it was not uncommon for a class of 50 or more Jesuit novices or scholastics to be at Wernersville, with up to four classes on campus at a time. In the mid-60’s, however, the numbers dropped off, and although the novitiate remained, scholastics in their juniorate studies moved elsewhere. To help fill those halls, Fr. George Schemel, SJ, in collaboration with other Jesuits and Sr. Judy Roemer, conceived and created the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, which opened in 1971. The Center provided men and women, both lay and religious, a destination for spiritual direction and retreats, and most importantly, a serene setting to experience the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
“The Jesuit Center from its inception was a collaboration between Jesuits and women religious,” explains Br. Christopher Derby, SJ, executive director of the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, and soon-to-be Provincial Assistant for Spirituality Ministries for Jesuits USA East. “Every retreat house has its specialties, and from the very beginning people were trained here to give the Spiritual Exercises—trained specifically for spiritual direction adapted for retreats.”
Fr. Kevin Gillespie, SJ, pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., remembers the importance of the Jesuit Center when he entered the novitiate in 1975. “It was a fabulous time to be a novice at Wernersville. We had the Spiritual Center right beside us, and Fr. George Aschenbrenner was our novice director—a friend who inspired us. I remember feeling a sacred presence at Wernersville.”
Fr. George Bur, SJ, superior of the Jesuit Community at Wernersville since 2015, who also oversaw its Brady Wing for infirm Jesuits until it closed in 2018, recalls his own first experience at Wernersville when he entered in 1959. “This was the place we all formed our first friendships in the Society,” he says. “In fact, most of us already knew some of the guys because so many of us had recently graduated from one of the Jesuit high schools of the Province.”
Fr. Bur and the other Jesuits at Wernersville will soon relocate, but what will not be moving from the site is the Jesuit cemetery. This is the final resting place for many Jesuits, including Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, who served as a missionary in Russia and spent fifteen years in the horrors of a Russian gulag. His books and reflections are a testament to an unwavering trust in God. Jesuits with an affinity for Wernersville often claim Fr. Ciszek summons them when they are called home to Christ. Fr. Tim Brown, SJ, former provincial for the Maryland Province and a professor at Loyola University Maryland, tells a poignant story regarding this. “Years ago, I was presenting at Wernersville on Walter Ciszek and reading from his book, He Leadeth Me. That same afternoon, we all went down to the Jesuit cemetery because a young scholastic named Joe Grady, who had died from leukemia, was being buried. As we got down there, I realized Walter Ciszek’s grave was right next to where Joe was being buried, and for the eulogy, his mother stood up and read the exact same passage I had just read of Walter Ciszek’s. It made me realize that Fr. Ciszek was welcoming Joe at Wernersville into the community of saints.”
The cemetery at Wernersville will remain and continue to grow, with hopeful plans for an adjacent chapel of some kind. The main buildings and grounds up the hill, however, will be sold. Although the Jesuit Center has continued a robust schedule of popular retreats, including those for the Diocese of Allentown and for hundreds of high school and college students from Philadelphia, the ongoing cost of renovations and upkeep for such a large, aging facility would require substantive subsidies from the USA East Province. Br. Derby admits, “A retreat center is not an income-generating body that can deal with the cost of a building and grounds like this.” Nevertheless, a void will be left, and Br. Derby looks to his upcoming role overseeing spirituality ministries as a chance to help foster retreat opportunities and other avenues for spiritual direction up and down the East Coast.
As a lay colleague in the Jesuit Center’s leadership, retreat director Susan Baker offers some words of hope despite her own heartache at seeing the Center close. “We must remember that we carry the grace and spirit of Wernersville within us. This is a relationship that endures in its sacred bond and goes beyond walls and boundaries. Ours is a legacy to carry forth!”
For the numerous Jesuits who said “yes” to God’s call at the doors of Wernersville many years ago, although they’ll no longer have the “walls and boundaries” that Susan describes, their memories will forever endure. And when they express those memories to others, smiles abound. “We were in the middle of our silent retreat,” begins Fr. Jim Casciotti, SJ, pastor at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore, as a grin curls the side of his mouth. He entered the novitiate in 1969. “I’m in the scullery in my cassock with an apron doing dishes and serving breakfast, and I look out the window, and there are flames 20 feet high leaping from the building across the way. So, I burst through the doors into the dining room, yelling, ‘Flames, flames everywhere, flames!’ Everybody jumped up and ran outside … except for my novice master, who just sat there, staring at me over his spoon, visibly upset that I had broken our silent retreat.” Fr. Casciotti can’t help but laugh heartily.
Indeed, Wernersville will always be a special place in the hearts of these Jesuits. Fr. Bill Watters, SJ, founder of St. Ignatius Academy and Cristo Rey Baltimore, also reflects with a wide smile, “I think the thing I remember most from Wernersville was a true sense of happiness, a sense of joy. It really was a wonderful home … a great community.”