By Richard Meek The Catholic Commentator
CHATAWA – Nestled in a stunningly beautiful corner of southwest Mississippi, Our Lady of Hope Retreat Center features 400 acres of Mother Nature’s finest work.
Far removed from a main highway, or even a small town, the rolling property offers a welcome tranquility, a place where deer roam freely, where native woods house species of every sort, where a picturesque lake featuring a gazebo and a canoe are the center’s welcome mat.
For Father Mark Beard it is a 400-acre answer to a prayer. A Catholic retreat center serving the Diocese of Baton Rouge has been a dream of his for several years but as he said “didn’t think it would ever come to fruition.”
He and Ponchatoula businessman Mike Fulmer had been seeking to purchase property suitable for a retreat center and believed they had found the ideal setting when the former Rosaryville Center went up for sale. Ultimately, the Dominican Sisters of Peace sold the retreat center to a businessman and it has since been turned into a non-demonitional center.
Fulmer later learned St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa, Mississippi was on the market. Originally opened by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1874 as an all-girls boarding school, the facility, which was used as a retreat center in later years, had become too burdensome for the sisters to continue to manage.
“When (Fulmer) called (regarding a visit to Chatawa) I think my first words were, ‘Mike I don’t think we can afford to go down one more rabbit hole,’” Father Beard recalled with a chuckle.
But he relented and during his initial tour Father Beard knew God was revealing his dream before his eyes with each passing step. But he had one more surprise coming when earlier this year the property was sold to an individual who then donated the property to Chatawa Retreat Center, a non-profit business which manages the facility.
“That was manna from heaven,” Father Beard said.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame had had the property listed for close to three years and fielded offers but it remained unsold. Fortunately, the buildings needed little work, a tribute to the sisters who Father Beard said “operated on a shoestring.”
The sprawling property features a combined 100,000 square feet of living areas, while Rosaryville had 10,000 square feet. Additionally, Our Lady of Hope has two dorms that can accommodate more than a combined 100 retreatants, a main dining room along with smaller dining rooms, a chapel that once served as a parish church, an outdoor Stations of the Cross, a firepit, cafeterias and beautiful vistas throughout.
A well-stocked gift shop includes paintings and digital copies of paintings of Drazen Vucina, an artist from Medjugorje, where Father Beard found his calling to be a priest. Our Lady of Hope features more than 50 of Drazen’s original works.
Improvements include turning the property’s oldest building, a storage area built in 1875, into a eucharistic adoration chapel.
Father Beard said all retreat centers offer the same amenities, such as good food and nice beds but what will ultimately separate Our Lady of the Hope are plans for 13 individual gardens that will include a Mary Garden and a garden of the apostles.
Father Beard admitted to some trepidation to opening the center during the COVID-19 pandemic, thinking “Really, Lord?’ Could we have picked a worse time to get started?”
Despite those concerns, success has come early. Already, the center has hosted several retreats, ranging from one day to a week. Other groups, such as ACTS, a production company and high schools have utilized the facility.
Also under discussion is four Catholic high schools who wish to host a four-team basketball tournament with the emphasis on the retreat component.
“It’s kind of hard to sell it until you come and visit it,” Father Beard acknowledged.
In the past few months he has visited the chaplains and youth ministers at the Catholic schools in New Orleans. He followed with personal invitations and open houses.
Father Beard has also made visits to schools in Mississippi and Alabama and a Lake Charles company recently took drone photography for the website.
“A lot of (the marketing) is personal; you need to meet the people and say ‘I need you to come visit,’“ he said.
Exuding an enthusiasm that is contagious, Father Beard discussed his vision for the future, which includes the potential of opening an elementary school that might be more “home schoolish” in the beginning.
Plans also call for building two tiny houses tucked away in the woods away from the center where clergy members can come spend a night or two to enjoy the solitude, to pray, to unwind. Father Beard cited the challenges of being a diocesan priest, saying that 20% percent is spent on the theological side of issues and the remaining 80% on such matters as building facilities maintenance, upkeep and meetings.
“You are not in the theology world and you can see it on the priests,” he said. “They are exhausted and his will give them a chance to get away and to be alone.”
For now, Father Beard roams the grounds frequently, checking on the status of projects, or more important checking on his dream.
“I love it,” he said. “I love the quiet. I love only to have to talk about our faith. We want to pass Catholicity through the door to as many people as we can.”
For information on Our Lady of Hope and how to book a retreat visit www.ourladyofhopems.com.