Father Chris Saenz, U.S. region director for the Missionary Society of St. Columban, stands in the outdoor gazebo on the grounds of the Columban Fathers’ Bellevue headquarters. The retreat center, which was adorned with a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2020, is in the background. PHOTO BY MIKE MAY

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Popular Columban retreat center to close next year

A place of peace and spiritual renewal that has been the site of thousands of retreats and other events and formed countless fond memories since the mid-1960s will soon conclude its service to the Omaha area’s Catholic community.

The St. Columban’s Retreat Center in Bellevue will close July 31, 2024, because of rising repair and maintenance costs. Those costs, especially for frequent plumbing repairs, have become unsustainable, said Father Chris Saenz, U.S. region director for the Missionary Society of St. Columban.

In fact, the center has operated with a deficit for the past 13 years, and closing it has been under consideration for the past decade, he said.

“We had to make realistic decisions about what we can maintain and what we can’t – that’s just the reality that we’re facing. It was a tough decision to make.”

The three-story, dormitory-style facility was built in the 1940s as a Columban Fathers seminary. Twenty years later, seminary operations were moved to the Boston area, and the building was recommissioned as a retreat center.

Groups that have frequently used the center include Marriage Encounter, Christians Encounter Christ (CEC), Knights of Columbus, Catholic Engaged Encounter and U.S. Air Force chaplains. Many parishes have also held events there, such as Alpha, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Confirmation retreats.

Nestled in the wooded hills of Bellevue, the retreat center’s solitude and the frequent presence of wildlife have been highlights for countless retreatants. “I think what really adds to the feel is the overall natural surroundings,” Father Saenz said. “It’s very peaceful here.”

Lori Bauer, a member of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, who attended a CEC retreat there last March, enjoyed that peacefulness and the presence of deer that often strolled the grounds.

“I also loved having the (Columban Fathers’) chapel nearby for prayer and Mass,” Bauer said. “And the Columban Fathers were so generous, being available for Confession.”

Tanner Olson, an Omaha Catholic who attended a retreat last June, was “pleasantly surprised” by all he experienced at the retreat center, including the opportunity to pray and reflect in the chapel as well as the Stations of the Cross, Stations of Resurrection and grotto on the Columban Fathers’ campus.

“All of that together in one place makes it a unique place,” he said. “It will be hard to replace.”

Current reservations will be honored through July 31, 2024, but no new reservations are being accepted. Reservations beyond July 31 will be canceled, with deposits refunded.

As in the past, people may still reserve the Columban Fathers’ chapel for weddings and baptisms, Father Saenz said, with the approval of their pastor and completion of pre-baptism and pre-marriage requirements in their parish.

The outdoor pavilion and large lounge/meeting room in the Columbans’ main building have also hosted many other events, such as wedding receptions, family reunions, graduation and birthday parties, and quinceañeras, said Dyanne Wendling, retreat center coordinator.

She said those facilities will remain available for such events and people are still free to use the walking trails and visit the grotto and stations.

Although there are currently no plans for the retreat center building, Father Saenz said, it will likely be used in some capacity by the Columban Fathers.

“I know the retreat center gave a lot of benefit to the archdiocese and the Catholic community … so it is like losing a part of history,” he said, “It’s a place of history that so many people have been a part of.”


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