Holy Spirit Center ministering to Alaskans for 50 years

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Holy Spirit Center, located in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains on 22 acres, overlooks a sweeping vista of the Anchorage bowl. One of the Archdiocese of Anchorage’s gems is now looking back on nearly 50 years of ministering to the spiritual needs of Alaskans.

Today, despite financial challenges over the years, Center director Alan Muise says Holy Spirit plays an important role as the only full-fledged retreat center with housing for retreatants in Alaska.

“We’re really the only game in the state,” said Muise. “And we house the best Catholic library in the state.”

The Center, established by Archbishop Joseph Ryan as a formal retreat facility around 1970-71, is almost as old as the archdiocese, which was established in 1966.

It started at its present location on Hillside Drive when Archbishop Ryan, during the late 1960s, purchased the Lutheran Church of Hope. That building, and others on Minnesota Drive, were being removed as part of a street widening project. The little church was hauled up O’Malley Road, where it became the nucleus of a campus that today has eight buildings and a beautiful outdoor Stations of the Cross.

Father Richard Tero, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Seward, has a long institutional memory and a love of history. His go-to book on archdiocesan history is Jesuit Father Louis Renner’s Alaskana Catholica, History of the Catholic Church in Alaska.

Father Tero told the Anchor that, according to Father Renner, the building on the hillside was initially called the Christian Family Center. It served a multitude of purposes at various times, including housing the Chancery and providing a home for the archbishop and other personnel.

Archbishop Ryan invited a group of cloistered sisters to Alaska, the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, to reside on the hillside, but initially, they were housed at Fire Lake north of Anchorage.

“They were still there in 1968,” said Father Tero, “because that’s the year Thomas Merton came to Alaska and visited them there.”

Soon, however, the cloistered sisters moved to the Center’s present location, and according to the Renner book, Archbishop Ryan invited Jesuit Father Vincent Kelliher, from the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, to come to Anchorage to be a chaplain to the sisters and serve as a fundraiser for the archdiocese. With his arrival in 1971, the name Holy Spirit Retreat House was born.

Over the life of Holy Spirit, a long list of Jesuits and laypeople have ministered there. But probably two names stand out in people’s memories for the spiritual impact they made: Father Kelliher, and later, Father Vincent Beuzer.

Father Kelliher remained at Holy Spirit until 1983 and shaped the institution’s early vision as a place of spiritual direction and contemplation. He was known for both the striking piety with which he celebrated Mass and his fundraising acumen.

Helen Boedecker, who built a home on the hillside with her husband Wayne, frequently attended daily Mass at the Center’s chapel inside the former Lutheran church.

She remembers that Father Kelliher’s homilies would often bring her to tears, and laughingly recalls a child saying, “Look, that lady’s crying again.” Boedecker still keeps copies of Father Kelliher’s writings that she finds inspiring, writings that were mailed with his fundraising appeals.

She also remembers someone asking Father Kelliher about his donor list, which he had accumulated from his store of contacts in Massachusetts and other parts of New England. Some of those far-off donors’ names are still inscribed on chairs in the small chapel in the main building.

“My gosh, what kind of a list do you have?” the inquirer asked.

“I have a very long list,” the Jesuit replied dryly.

Boedecker and her husband assisted with couples’ retreats at the Center, and later the site became the venue for Marriage Encounter. Jesuit Father Jim Conyard served as Marriage Encounter priest at Holy Spirit for years.
Peggy Bergsrud, who is now coordinating archival work for the archdiocese, said she and the women of St. Anthony Parish held retreats at the retreat house twice yearly beginning in the 1970s.

Bergsrud, who is weeding through a trove of early pictures, said the cloistered sisters lived near the south end of the original building. There’s still a door carved with the word “monastery” on the premises. Buildings were added as the site grew, and the lower level of one building was used for Father Kelliher’s printing and mailing operation.

She also recalls Father Kelliher’s liturgies. “When he would say Mass, his dog, a collie, would lay near the altar,” Bergsrud remembered.

In 1976, Archbishop Francis Hurley was appointed to replace the departing Archbishop Ryan. The Chancery, which had been in several venues, including the campus of Holy Family Cathedral, was moved to an office building at 4th Avenue and L Street. Due to personnel issues, the cloistered sisters did not remain in Anchorage for long, and in 1983 Father Kelliher returned to the East Coast, taking his much-vaunted donor list with him.
Jesuit Father Vincent Beuzer was probably the Jesuit who most shaped Holy Spirit as a center of Ignatian spirituality, inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. During his tenure, even the name was changed, from “Retreat House” to “Center” with the vision that Ignatian programs would be generated by Holy Spirit and shared in parishes across the archdiocese.

Father Beuzer arrived in 1986, served as director for many years, and remained on staff until 2010 to become its longest-serving Jesuit. He, working with ministry coordinator Kathy Gallagher, began a wide range of programs, including the popular Challenge program, a 34-week retreat loosely modeled after the Exercises.

Muise, who moved to Alaska with his wife Nancy in the 1990s, quickly became involved with Challenge. A cadre of volunteers was enlisted to facilitate the program in local parishes, and two more intensive retreat programs were available to those who had completed Challenge. A two-year spiritual director training program, which Muise completed, was developed by Father Beuzer and Gallagher.

In an interview with the Anchor at the time of Father Beuzer’s death in 2011, Muise said the Jesuit “was a life-changer for me; he had that much of an impact…he was a mentor in all things. Working with him was a constant training environment, a constant conversation about spirituality.”

Another graduate of Father Beuzer’s programs, who helped facilitate Challenge, was Meg Zerbinos of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Soldotna. At the time of the priest’s death, she told the Anchor, “Father Beuzer was intelligent and wise with a huge heart for people.”

After Father Beuzer’s departure, the Jesuits were no longer able to provide men for staffing and the Ignatian emphasis diminished. It was the end of forty years of collaboration with the Jesuits.

Today, said Muise, Holy Spirit Center is supported in part through rentals of the facility. Particularly during the week, when the Center isn’t needed for ministry events, it’s available for other groups, particularly non-profits looking for a quiet, reflective venue for meetings. Funds also come from the Sunday liturgy at the Center, and a Challenge fund drive.

Muise said the Center manages to operate in the black. “We do some reroofing, new boilers, interior work. We had a team of engineers out after the earthquake, and fortunately, we had no structural concerns,” he said.
Retreats at the Center remain a staple, said Muise, although the pandemic has caused cancellations. But typically, the Center provides a Lenten and Fall retreat, hosts a 12-step retreat in September, and welcomes groups who bring in retreats. Centering prayer has become very popular in the archdiocese, Muise said, and the Center hosts at least five centering retreats a year, including an eight-day retreat and a Spanish tract.

Engaged Encounter weekends, occasional school days of reflection, the marriage renewal program Retrouvaille, and mission groups, all keep the Center busy. A men’s group has met for spiritual enrichment for years at the Center.

“We have 26 bedrooms available, half with double beds and half twins,” Muise said, and many times there’s an overflow crowd of commuters.
One red-letter day for Holy Spirit Center came in April of 1992 when Resurrection Chapel was dedicated. The stand-alone facility was a gift from Ben and Dawn Tisdale and has enormous windows with a sweeping panoramic view of both Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains.
Although Holy Spirit Center has never been a parish, many people attend Sunday liturgies in Resurrection Chapel at 9 a.m. each week.

Throughout the fifty years of Holy Spirit Center’s ministry to the people of the archdiocese, probably the moments many remember best are those spent in the quiet of one-on-one spiritual direction or accompaniment. To inquire about receiving direction, or find the name of a director – many of them trained by Father Beuzer – contact the Center.

For the past seven years, Father Luz Flores has served as pastoral director for Holy Spirit Center.

In addition to their involvement with Challenge, the Muises have provided music ministry for the Center since the 1990s. After Alan’s planned retirement in October, they’ll continue with their Sunday morning music ministry.

Muise’s departure this fall creates a new chapter for the Center. From his early involvement as a volunteer in music and Ignatian programs, he’s been an integral part of ministry and management at the Center for over 25 years. Hired in 2004 to be the business manager, he served in a variety of roles and titles until assuming the director’s title in 2017. He provided the Board with one-year notice so that they, and now a new archbishop, have plenty of time to chart the future of a spiritual center which has been integral to the archdiocese since its infancy.

'Holy Spirit Center ministering to Alaskans for 50 years'
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