A gas lantern casts light over a sturdy wooden rocking chair draped with a thick throw where a glimpse of a whitetail deer can be seen through a large picture window.
In this cozy little cabin with a screened porch, a book titled “Poustinia,” the Russian word for “desert,” lies on a small table next to the chair. The only sounds are the occasional rustling of leaves, the wind, wildlife and the warming of a kettle of tea.
Here, in this hermitage, guests spend time alone with God, following Christ’s example of finding a place where he could be alone to pray.
It was the dream of Shirley Wanchena to create this retreat center called Pacem in Terris, which means “Peace on Earth,” located in Isanti. The center’s 240-acre expanse of woodlands is home to 19 cabin-like hermitages, each named after a saint.
Since its first guests arrived on May 1, 1988, some 20,000 pilgrims have made their way to the sacred place, drawing people from all 50 states and from several countries. A special Mass with Bishop Donald Kettler is planned in May to mark the 30th anniversary this year, and also in remembrance of Wanchena, who passed away in 2014.
Tim Drake, who lives in St. Joseph, frequented the hermitages for years before becoming the retreat center’s director last year. He said he continues to be amazed by the stories of guest’s encounters with God.
“The first day when people come, there can be a lot of tears,” he said. “It’s just you and the Lord. You’re not wearing the mask that we usually wear in our marriages, or our jobs or other roles. You are just naked before God. You are faced with your own shortcomings. People come struggling with addictions or marriage troubles or other issues and when they come here, we often hear that they have found healing. I never get tired of hearing those stories.”
Father Tom Knoblach, pastor of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud, has been making spiritual retreats to Pacem in Terris since just a few months after its opening.
“A friend introduced me to this sacred space set aside to encounter the peace of God after having spent a week there, and I have made an annual retreat every year since ordination with one or two interruptions,” Father Knoblach said. “The natural beauty of the place — woods, water, squirrels, even the gnats — has changed over the years with regional development and the oak wilt that required the removal of many trees. And staff and volunteers have changed, but the presence of God has enveloped the land and people who have visited Pacem in an unmistakable and immediately perceptible way.”
Each year, he said, he makes a written list of events, encounters and circumstances that have been a struggle for him over the past months, and keeps adding to the list until he feels it is complete.
“Then, I burn that paper as a concrete way to hand over to God all that weighs on my spirit, and begin anew. It has become a treasured gesture of healing and forgiveness, and I come to know again the patient mercy of the Lord.”
Spirit of simplicity
When guests arrive at the center, they are welcomed at Our Lady of Pacem community house. There, they receive a basket of homemade goods, fruit and cheese. The staff prays over the food and for the guests who will receive it. Then guests are brought to their individual hermitage where basic necessities are provided.
In the spirit of simplicity, there is no electricity or plumbing in the individual hermitages, although there is a gas lantern and burner as well as heat. Clean water for drinking and grooming is provided. Outdoor bathrooms are near each cabin and the main house provides complete modern facilities.
Aimee Bates, a member of St. Augustine Church in St. Cloud, first went to Pacem in 2011 after a friend encouraged her to go. Since then, she has made three retreats as a hermit.
“Each stay at Pacem has been a little different,” Bates said. “The time there is slow and peaceful, quiet and prayerful. I enjoy walking the trails, watching out the picture window and just being with God.
“Each time I have gone to Pacem I have seen growth in my relationship with God. Taking time to really slow down and just be with God has helped me in my daily life to pray more, and know that God is with me and to rely on him more,” she said.
The retreat center welcomes people of all faiths and abilities. Three indoor hermitages are designed to be handicapped- accessible as well as for those requiring electricity for medical equipment or those with limited mobility. A simple, quiet chapel is used for the celebration of Mass, staff prayer, prayer gatherings and personal quiet meditation.
Almost exactly a year ago, Deacon Mike Benda, member of St. Mary’s Cathedral, visited Pacem in Terris for his canonical retreat in preparation for his diaconate ordination, which took place last June. In this case, it was a guided retreat led by Father Tim Nolan, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who has been involved with Pacem for many years.
“Considering why I was there and the direction I received, for me it was a life-defining moment,” Deacon Benda said. “Part of my retreat was to recollect where I need to forgive others and where I am in need of forgiveness. I spent a day praying and journaling about this. This prompted a journey through my life and came to the realization that with the sudden death of my father at a young age, I had held this against God the Father since that time. In the peace of Pacem, I experienced a moment of extreme clarity, which is difficult to explain. It was a clarity of, at one moment, an acknowledgement of my need for forgiveness, and the realization of receiving it. God is a merciful Father and rejoices when we return.”
Wanchena’s vision from the days when there were three cabins and half of a basement as the retreat center “blesses not only those who have prayed there, but all of us,” Father Knoblach said. “[It is] a steady oasis where Christ is loved, sought and found. There are many problems in our world, but grace and peace are also here, when we make space for them in place and time, as Pacem in Terris does with faith, hope and love.”
For more information or to make a reservation, visit www.paceminterris.org or call 763-444-6408.
30 Facts about Pacem in Terris Hermitage Retreat Center
1. Shirley Wanchena accepted God’s invitation to “create an environment where my people can come and be alone with me,” in 1979.
2. The first 80 acres were purchased in 1982.
3. Pacem in Terris is located on the very edge of the Diocese of St. Cloud in Isanti County.
4. Pacem accepted its first guests on May 1, 1988.
5. Pacem began with three hermitages.
6. The first official dedication took place in 1989, with Bishop Jerome Hanus and retired Bishop George Speltz presiding.
7. In 1992, Pacem in Terris received a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II, who described it as a “hermitage sanctuary.”
8. Additional acreage was obtained in 1995.
9. The retreat center, Our Lady of Pacem, opened in 2000.
10. Today, there are 19 total hermitages.
11. Many bishops have been guests at Pacem.
12. Father Timothy Nolan, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, serves as chairman of the board of directors.
13. Pacem welcomes guests of all faiths. More than 50 percent of guests are non-Catholic.
14. Pacem has had at least 20,000 guests since its opening.
15. Founder Shirley Wanchena died in 2014.
16. Pacem has woods, native prairie, wetlands and a lake on its property.
17. Pacem receives approximately 1,100 guests annually.
18. Pacem was inspired by the witness of St. Francis, but it is independent and lay operated.
19. Pacem has received guests from all 50 states.
20. The average length of guest stay is two to three days.
21. Hundreds of volunteer Prayer Partners pray for Pacem’s guests daily.
22. Pacem in Terris is Latin for “Peace on Earth.”
23. Pacem is situated on 240 acres.
24. Pacem has received guests from several foreign countries.
25. Three interior hermitages are available in the lower level of Our Lady of Pacem, with electricity.
26. Each hermitage features a heater, burner and gas lamp.
27. Pacem’s busiest time of the year is October.
28. Every guest receives a food basket with cheese, bread, date muffin and fruit.
29. When guests make their reservation, staff pray about which hermitage to place the guest.
30. Each hermitage is named after a saint.
— Compiled by Tim Drake, executive director