'Slow Down and Breathe': Rest, Relaxation and Reenergizing at the JCC

Building surrounded by trees at sunrise

Popular retreat programs offer a slate of options for alumni across generations

One was looking for a community of faith. Another was mourning the death of his wife of more than 50 years. And a third, juggling grad school and a full-time job, just needed time to breathe.

Their reasons are as individual as their lives, yet dozens of alumni are looking to — and heading back to — Holy Cross for alumni retreats as a way to find direction, rest or enrichment.

An Unexpected Community

They were snowed in, but no one minded, including Tom Beecher '56, P90. "It was beautiful," he says of the snowy March 2019 alumni retreat at the Thomas P. Joyce '59 Contemplative Center, tucked away in the woods overlooking the Wachusett Reservoir. "It kind of confirmed that we should be there."

Thanks to a popular new program offering a slate of retreat options for all alumni and their spouses, Beecher was on his second retreat at Holy Cross — over six decades after he graduated.

A humble, high-energy father and grandfather at 84, Beecher works full time as chairman of the board of Barrantys LLC, a wealth management firm, and is a widely respected leader in his community, where he has championed many causes, from healthcare initiatives to scholarship funding for low-income students. In 2017, he received a Sanctae Crucis Award from Holy Cross in recognition of his exceptional life of service, which has been guided by his belief: "If you can do well, you can — and should — do good."

Young man sits with an older gentleman sit at a table looking at each other

When Beecher made his first alumni retreat in 2018, his beloved wife of 51 years, Judy, had recently passed away, and he was coping with grief. He signed up for a weekend silent retreat, a shortened version of the Spiritual Exercises, a compilation of meditation, prayer and reflection developed by St. Ignatius to help people deepen their relationship with God. His experience was so powerful, Beecher didn't want to go home. This past winter, he made the trip again from his home in Buffalo, New York, for a five-day silent retreat, which was open to alumni and students.

Beecher says he couldn't believe the sense of community that formed, even in silence, and loved experiencing it with current students who were participating over their spring break: "They inspire me at the end of my life by seeing how they are beginning theirs."

Older man standing, smiling with ashes on forehead for ash Wednesday

On his first retreat, he spent time reflecting on his life: "I tell my kids and grandkids to be 'men and women for others.' So it's important for me to go back and say, 'How have I done?'" He also looked ahead, asking, "What is God's plan for me?" even though he knew he wouldn't necessarily get an immediate response. "You get to learn to live with as much of the answer as God wants to give you at any time," Beecher says.

Coming out of the retreat, Beecher says he was very open to a suggestion a friend made at a dinner. Both are concerned Catholics with heavy hearts over the sexual abuse crisis in the church. That conversation eventually led to the founding of The Movement to Restore Trust, an independent organization seeking reform and healing in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. "We've really gotten a lot done," he says, crediting the retreat with giving him the push to take action. He plans to return for another retreat to recharge for the year ahead.

"It's a structure into which you fit your own program, so it's as applicable to an 18-year-old freshman as to an 84-year-old alum," he explains. "You just show up and then follow — it's all organized for you. It will change your life. This is what Holy Cross is about."

The Door is Open Wide

Three years ago, the opening of the Joyce Contemplative Center gave the campus community a long-awaited peaceful retreat home. Located in West Boylston, Massachusetts, a 20-minute drive from Mount St. James, it is widely used year-round by students, faculty and staff.

The facility also fulfilled a long-held dream of the Chaplains' Office: to give graduates like Beecher the chance to return for rest and spiritual development at any point throughout their lives. Without a dedicated space, the program was logistically impossible.

"Anyone — including alums, their spouses and even widows of alums — can come at any stage, from any faith background or tradition, on an alumni retreat," says Marybeth Kearns-Barrett '84, director of the Office of College Chaplains. "We have many alums for whom it's their first retreat and then we have people who have been on a retreat either as a student or at other points in their lives. You don't need to have your faith figured out — it's very much a place that's good for seekers."

"We understand that so much goodness and joy and sadness happens in people's lives," says Megan Fox-Kelly '99, associate chaplain and director of retreats. "What a gift to be able to give our alumni, to come back and pause in a place that's so foundational to who they are."

Whether it's Mass or mindfulness, the Chaplains' Office is well-attuned to the need for self-care. Annual alumni retreat choices include silent weekend retreats, Spiritual Exercises-based retreats, an Ignatian weekend retreat, an Advent day of prayer, a women's retreat, a men's retreat and a marriage prep retreat, which fulfills the pre-Cana program requirement in most dioceses, including Worcester. Retreats for young alumni and students of color, as well as one for LGBTQIA+ alumni, are offered alternating years, with both slated to run next in the 2020-2021 academic year.

"It's a structure into which you fit your own program, so it's as applicable to an 18-year-old freshman as to an 84-year-old alum."

Tom Beecher '56, P90

Program lengths vary in duration from one day to five, with silent and non-silent options. All retreats, even silent, offer an opportunity for participants to get to know each other, talks or ideas for reflection or prayer throughout the day, one-on-one meetings with a spiritual director and optional time for worship. Certain retreats incorporate yoga or guided meditation. And overnight stays include individual private rooms with bathrooms, as well as all meals.

Some alumni retreats include current students, which has surprised even the skeptical as a favorite aspect. "The wisdom that's shared both ways is really remarkable to watch," Fox-Kelly notes. There is also time to do artwork, take walks outside, sit in the chapel or read a book. Many simply crave a long nap, which is encouraged to be taken guilt-free as part of a holistic mind-body approach.

A student reads in a chair
Four students sit in chairs with books and computers

Recharging Batteries

Narly Cabral-Nunez '14, an eighth-grade math teacher from Lawrence, Massachusetts, says "finding the time to slow down and breathe is challenging." When she decided to go on an alumni retreat, she was working full time and pursuing a master's degree in education. "There was a lot to juggle," Cabral-Nunez says. "My battery was drained. I was exhausted and burnt out."

But even simply signing up for the program gave her a sense of relief: "As a student I went on a few retreats, and I loved them. That was the time when I also realized that contemplative prayer and meditation replenishes my self-care 'bank' or 'battery.'"

Cabral-Nunez has attended a silent weekend retreat and the women's retreat. "Being spiritually guided by Meg Fox-Kelly was a blessing," she says of the one-on-one time with her spiritual director. "At the end of the retreat, I felt an incredible sense of calmness and clarity. I was able to see and feel God around me, which is something that took me a long time to acknowledge and understand."

Two trees in the foreground next to a large home with the lights on in the night sky

Jane Morrissey '87, P21, a school nurse who lives in Salem, Massachusetts, had never been on a retreat before. Two years ago, she found herself "looking for a community of faith" in her life. When she saw an alumni retreat email arrive in her inbox, she took a leap and registered for the women's weekend program.

"It was amazing to be around women of all ages who are thinking and coming from different walks and stages of life," Morrissey says. "I felt like my faith was being fed, my soul was being enriched. It was nice to reconnect with a community like that after so long being away from it."

Her daughter, a high school senior at the time, had just been accepted to Holy Cross. As a mother about to send her daughter off to college, Morrissey thought, "Wow. She's going into really great hands."

During a weekend talk given by a Holy Cross professor, Morrissey was so struck by a quote, she had to write it down: "If you can't find it, just found it." After the retreat she realized, "If I'm not finding what I'm looking for in the world, I have to found it." So she and a friend started a women's book club centered around faith, which has since grown by word of mouth. "For me," Morrissey says, "that was a big deal."

She loved her experience so much, she returned in 2019 — this time joined by her daughter, now a sophomore. As long as there is space, Morrissey plans to keep coming back and she has stayed in touch with alumni she met through the weekends.

"If you even have the thought, you're ready to go," Morrissey says. "I honestly couldn't think of a safer and more welcoming environment than the one I experienced in those weekends at Holy Cross."

Sunrise Surprise

When Freddy J. Sinchi '09 showed up for the Ignatian retreat weekend in 2016, he was planning to sleep in after a busy week teaching Spanish to high schoolers in New York City. But an early-morning (and ultimately uneventful) fire alarm made for the start of an unexpected personal tradition after the entire group ended up watching the sunrise together. "It was God-sent," Sinchi says. "The second time I went on retreat, I went to sleep early so I could get up and see the sunrise — just being able to see nature and the beauty of God."

A cross hanging in front of a window looking out onto a forest and a lake

Sinchi made several retreats as a student, but at that time they were held at different rented spaces throughout New England because the College didn't have a dedicated space to host them. The feeling he gets at the Joyce Contemplative Center, however, is different — and strong. "You're coming back home," he says.

On retreat, silence and slowing down are key for Sinchi. "It's difficult when you are so busy and things are on your mind, but being able to retreat is the point of it," he says. "We have to take care of ourselves. One thing I started doing was journaling. Before, I wasn't about that. We're so attached to our phones that we write everything there — sometimes it's good to just have a notebook around."

He's made new friends through the programs, valuing the ability to "pray and be in faith and community with a group of Holy Cross alums who also need that as well."

Currently pursuing his second master's degree while working full time, Sinchi wasn't able to make a retreat this year because of weekend classes. "It kind of threw me off," he says, but knows he can return. "When things become hectic in life, just pause and take a moment retreat."

And while Sinchi wasn't new to retreats, he gets that those who are might be nervous. He remembers wondering before his first student retreat, "'Should I do it or not?' I had those thoughts — but I'm glad I didn't back out," he says. "Trust the process that you will get something out of it. After the retreats, I feel renewed and refreshed — that I can go back to work and go back to the city and conquer life."

Home Base for Life

Kearns-Barrett hopes that the College's alumni retreat offerings serve as a freeing and comforting reminder that "God doesn't leave me when I walk across the stage at graduation." As alumni make their unique journeys through life, they and their spouses should all feel welcome to return and explore their faith through the retreat program, she adds.

"If there is any requirement, it's just a generous heart — our heart, or our hands, open to see what God wants to put in there," reminds Rev. Paul F. Harman, S.J., the College's director of special projects in mission. He adds that every retreat builds in time for sharing life's struggles or questions "because, for all of us, that's so helpful — to know that we're not alone in the world."

 "God doesn't leave me when I walk across the stage at graduation." 

Marybeth Kearns-Barrett Director of the Chaplains Office

Retreat Options Available Across the Country

While the Chaplains' Office welcomes all alumni to the Joyce Contemplative Center, they understand that personal and professional schedules, geography and many other factors may preclude people from making the trip to West Boylston. However, for those who feel called, retreat and spiritual development opportunities can be found across the country or even in your home. Just as participants vary, so do the types of retreats and ways to make them.

For more information, including links to individual centers, visit jesuits.org/retreat-centers.