For most of the 20th century, whether viewed from the secluded, tree-lined entrance or from the water side—with its sweeping, pastoral grounds overlooking the banks of the beautiful Severn River—Manresa on the Severn stood as a familiar, if somewhat curious, Annapolis landmark. Beginning in 1914, and for decades afterwards, the lay retreat movement was quite active in the Baltimore-Washington area. In general, the story is one of supreme and, upon occasion, heroic effort on the part of many laymen to sustain a purely spiritual idea.
To truly understand the history of Manresa, one must reach back to a time far removed from modern day Annapolis, back to the year 1522, when Iñigo Lopez de Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, experienced a profound transformational experience in a cavern in the Spanish city of Manresa (pronounced man REES uh), 30 miles outside of Barcelona. De Loyola (later named St. Ignatius of Loyola) abandoned a life of privilege within a noble Basque family to pursue penance, prayer, fasting, and “holy chivalry” as an austere and humble servant of God. Fleeing to Paris during the Spanish Inquisition, he eventually traveled to Venice and then Rome, where in 1540 he and a small band of companions gained the approval of Pope Paul III, and the formal recognition of the Society of Jesus. The vision and disciplines of the “Jesuits,” as they came to be called, caught the imagination of Europe. Eventually Jesuits were found in Europe’s major cities as well as in the New World, where the newly formed sect helped the poor, infirm, orphaned and under-educated. In The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, the most important work of his later years, Ignatius stated that the Society was to be an order of apostles “helping others to find God in all things” and “living outside monastery walls, seeing the world as their missionary field.” Ignatius was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Three hundred years later, in 1922, he was declared patron of all spiritual retreats by Pope Pius XI. But his greatest legacy is his Spiritual Exercises, which he sketched out in that same cave in Manresa and which were first published in 1548. A classic of Christian spirituality and the hallmark of Jesuit preparation, the Exercises have been in constant use for 465 years. They lead a person through four “weeks” (a flexible term) of meditations and prayers, guided by a spiritual director, generally during a retreat.
Today the term Manresa usually signifies a place where groups of people withdraw for prayer, mediation, study and instruction under a director, events known as retreats. The seeds of Manresa on the Severn were planted in 1634 when Jesuit priest Father Andrew White and two colleagues landed on St. Clement Island in southern Maryland with a group of Catholic and Protestant settlers. After overcoming a succession of trials and tribulations, including the 1773 suppression of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits emerged as the largest religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Today, there are more than 21,000 Jesuit priests, brothers, novices and scholastics throughout the world, organized in 85 administrative units called Provinces, Manresa on the Severn having been part of the Maryland Province.
The first “closed retreat” was made by eighteen men at Georgetown University in August 1914. Other than their families, few people knew what the men were doing as they gathered together to celebrate mass, follow the Stations of the Cross, rest, reflect, take communal meals and take time for spiritual reading, contemplation and private adoration. Out of that humble beginning grew two retreat houses: Manresa on the Severn and Loyola on Potomac in Faulkner, Md ( Charles County), which opened in 1958. During its existence, more than 100,000 retreatants gathered at Manresa on the Severn. These included such diverse groups as clergy, government officials, engineers, contractors, insurance men, Knights of Columbus, midshipmen, policemen, and FBI agents.
While the property was lovely to behold, procuring, maintaining, and financing that serene beauty was a constant source of earthly struggle for the holy men who managed the facility. Father Eugene McDonnell, founder and director from 1926 to 1935, kept a house diary in the early days. In it, he told of the quest for a suitable piece of property, conveniently located between Baltimore and Washington, and the almost insurmountable difficulties—chiefly physical and financial—in constructing the facility on a steep hill. The diary denotes a two and a half year search conducted across the state that culminated when Fr. McDonnell approached the Washington Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad.
“Mr. Doyle, President of the W.B. & A. received me graciously and told me of a small triangular piece of property at Severnside Station on the W.B. & A.… some six acres with a drop perpendicular down to the water of sixty four feet. The property was covered with trees and brush. There was no way of getting into the property…yet I figured a road could be made.” Mr. Doyle offered the railroad property for $640.00, the price of the mortgage on it. I could not understand how it could sell for such a price. When I took others down to see it they thought me crazy…”
Following the purchase of the railroad property, additional land was needed to allow access to Annapolis Boulevard. Fifteen more acres were purchased at a cost of $12,000 (an exorbitant sum in the early 1900s). The work of clearing the property constituted a major operation. A steam shovel was employed to cut through the trees and underbrush towards the hill upon which Manresa was to be built. According to the diary, some 150 trees were cut down and put into the swamp as a fill, later to be covered over with earth.
“Finally the shovel reached the hill on which the house was to be built. The question then was, will I leave that 64-foot precipice or will I go out into the river, put down a retaining wall, fill in, grade the hill down the sixty four feet?…The shovel took down the hill and put it in the river. The bulkhead was made of the timbers of the old bridge and hundreds of these timbers are lying under the hill, filling in and saving that much dirt. Thus the hill was sloped down and a level piece of property some 300 feet wide and 1200 feet long was added to the property. The hill was sodded and the wide concrete staircase run down to the level. Mr. Thomas Rohe of Baltimore did a good job in this work, for the place was a jungle and no human being seemed ever to have trodden it.”
In March 1926 actual construction of the building was underway. The following month, the first group of 52 men came to Manresa for a weekend retreat. Successive groups of students, lawyers and others followed. Attendance continued to increase; in 1927, 1,008 men went on 35 retreats.
In 1929, engineers determined that the only way to prevent worsening shoreline erosion was to install a concrete wall, which was constructed from wooden forms and poured concrete, at a cost of $8,000 (again, a large sum). Despite nagging financial troubles, the following year, the new Chapel at Manresa was begun. Fr. McDonnell tells the story of running into a colleague on a street corner in downtown Baltimore, to whom he happened to mention his desire to build a new chapel. The next day the man sent a check for $10,000. The padre was astounded.
“Was I dreaming? No, it was all true. That is how I got the chapel.”
On March 13, 1931, the main altar in the new chapel was consecrated, and the year 1932 marked the high point in the number of retreatants, with a grand total of 1675. But the Depression took its toll and the next three years were hard ones for Manresa, numerically and financially. On Christmas Day 1933, Father McDonnell wrote,
“I did not send out cards to all the men as I could not afford it. This has been a terrible year financially. It was necessary for me to do some begging. I held a raffle and raised the money to pay the interest which the bank let me carry over to 1934.”
Having weathered the storms of wartime and the nation’s financial disasters, things ultimately began to look up. During 1939, the retreat movement had become so popular that members of several groups had to sleep on cots in the corridors. It was to be many years until the new wing was added, but the pressure to expand was mounting. Over the years, expansion and renovation of the building was a ceaseless challenge of mortar and mortgage. In 1944, for the first time, the operation ran in the black.
Year by year, the number of men coming to Manresa steadily increased until the 1957 peak of 4797 retreatants. Some years before, the Archdiocese of Baltimore had been split and the Archdiocese of Washington came into existence. Over time, the facilities available at Manresa proved inadequate to accommodate both Archdioceses.
The social changes of the 1960s crept into the staid existence of Manresa. Though still primarily a retreat house for men, in the mid-60s retreats were conducted for married couples. In 1966, Father Eugene Linehan began a six-year term that would bring fundamental changes to Manresa. He came with a Provincial mandate to take new directions, while seeking to maintain the old. The number of retreatants was declining and there was a desire to create a new image for Manresa after Vatican II. The complete renovation of the chapel symbolized this.
“That was an exciting time in my life,” he says. “We wanted Manresa on the Severn to become a place where it was possible for people to spend days reflecting on their own work, whatever that would be.” Among the changes spearheaded by Fr. Linehan was the opening of the doors to women, non-Catholic ecumenical groups, and community organizations. In keeping with the building’s history, these changes came with requisite renovations, including women’s bathrooms and other updated modifications to the existing building.
At the end of Father Linehan’s term, new leadership attempted to reaffirm the religious and spiritual purposes of Manresa as a place primarily to practice the Spiritual Exercises. However, it soon became clear that Manresa could not operate financially on this basis alone. The years 1975-1977 were described by the Province as “groping years, (with) a growing sense of frustration.” Despite progressive promotions, such as a fifteen-minute color/sound film titled “A Weekend Retreat at Manresa,” the market began to dwindle. After a long process of discernment and consultation, during which the facility continued to operate in the red, the Province invested $630,000 in capital improvements, with the primary goal of increasing the number of retreats and programs based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, thus reducing dependence on hosting guest retreats and programs. These renovations were completed in October 1982.
Although there was some initial growth after these improvements were made, Manresa’s physical facilities were eventually deemed insufficiently attractive in comparison with other and newer Retreat Houses in the area. These factors ultimately reduced the number of retreats held at Manresa, thus making it necessary for the facility to regularly rely on grants and loans to balance its budget. Moreover, of those groups that annually used Manresa, less than one third participated in retreats under the direction of Manresa’s staff. Finally, it was decided to close Manresa on the Severn as a Province retreat house after the conclusion of the last scheduled retreat in August 1993, and to put the property up for sale.
On May 31, 1995, Ewing Health Services of Salisbury Maryland purchased the Manresa Retreat House and property for use as an assisted living facility. The proceeds of the sale were placed in a quasi-endowment fund, revenue from which was to be used to support the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises in the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. Today fourteen lovingly restored outdoor Stations of the Cross, maintained by various local churches, remain on the grounds of Atria at Manresa, an assisted living home on the banks of the Severn River.
The legacy and influence of Manresa on the Severn as a retreat house remains widespread. In August 1947, Father Robert S. Lloyd, who served as director from 1935 to 1951 and long time editor of The Manresan newsletter, wrote, “It is impossible to properly record in this brief column the many events that (took) place at Manresa with consistent rapidity. One has to live the life to appreciate the tempo of events.” Wil liam P. McCahill, a frequent contributor to The Manresan, confessed to “a sense of exhaustion, mixed with exhilaration at the opportunity to live vicariously with the Jesuits and retreatants through…a small but important page in American history.”
League of Laymen’s Retreats. Golden Jubilee: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyala 1914-1964. Baltimore: The Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1964.
Loyola on Potomac (Loyola Retreat House). www.loyalretreat.org
Manresa Jesuit Retreat House. www.manresa-sj.org
The Manresa Project. www.marquette.edu/pages/home/manresa/about/history
Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. (Archives)