Along the entry road to St. Rita Retreat near Gold Hill, a statue of the patron saint stands placidly near a waterfall. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)
Along the entry road to St. Rita Retreat near Gold Hill, a statue of the patron saint stands placidly near a waterfall. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)
" When I go through the gate I feel I am going under the shadow of God’s wings.
" Wanda Fairman a member of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass who visits St. Rita Retreat regularly
GOLD HILL — On a wooded hilltop 25 minutes from Medford, spiritual seekers step out of the world and onto holy ground.

St. Rita Retreat includes small waterfalls, trails winding into the trees, a grotto, outdoor stations of the cross, a prayer labyrinth, a quiet chapel with stained glass and guest rooms that offer views across the Rogue River Valley. Deer, rabbits and wild turkeys roam the woods. Birds sing with what seems like holy zeal.

All that, melded with intangible qualities, draws visitors.

“When I go through the gate I feel I am going under the shadow of God’s wings,” said Wanda Fairman, a member of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass who moved to Oregon almost a decade ago. “It is sacred space. I find a beauty, inside and out, and a peace there.”

Fairman, who visits monthly, knows people in the region hunger for refuge from worldly troubles. “It’s a place to relax and get restored in God’s presence,” she explained. “You feel you are coming for nourishment.”

Some come for spiritual direction from Father Stephen Fister, the resident holy man. A former Benedictine monk and pastor, he’s known as a good listener who offers sound advice.

“The feeling here is of being up on a hill in the middle of nowhere,” Father Fister said.

The retreat center last month hosted its first group retreat in 21 months. Even before the pandemic, this was an intimate compound, with space for no more than 30 guests.

“I was becoming a hermit here,” joked Father Fister.

Individual retreatants have been welcomed all along, with safety protocols in place. Proof of vaccination and masks are required on site.

For those seeking more solitude, there is a hermitage in the woods.

The holy ground appeals to all kinds of people in Southern Oregon and beyond, no matter their tradition. A Buddhist meditation community visits regularly, as do 12-step groups. But the hilltop has a clear Catholic identity.

Longtime supporter Gail Freeman, a member of Our Lady of the River Mission in Rogue River, notes that the patroness, St. Rita, was a wife, mother and widow before becoming an Augustinian nun. Many people can identify with her. Along the driveway, a statue of St. Rita stands near a waterfall, lovingly contemplating a crucifix. Freeman and other members of the secular Augustinian order consider the retreat site their spiritual home.

“In this busy world we need a sacred space where we can go and spend time,” Freeman said. “Sometimes I just feel drawn. It just pulls you. It's a place where I can come together with others who are on a spiritual journey. And I can go there and work through issues.”

St. Rita Retreat got its start when Don Hogge posed a tough question. Having arrived in Medford in 1978, he asked Father Joseph Beno at Sacred Heart Parish why there was no retreat house in the region. That got the priest thinking, and consulting.

Hogge, who’d been active in Marriage Encounter and Cursillo, was tending his plant store one day in 1980 when a young Augustinian friar named Father Tom Whelan walked in and said, “I understand you want to have a retreat center.”

The two men formed plans, recruited other supporters, held meetings and organized a country club fundraiser. Chauvner and Ruth Thompson, from one of the oldest Catholic families in the region, donated 63 acres on a rise near Gold Hill.

In 1982, members of Southern Oregon parishes pledged $150,000 for construction.

Augustinian Father Bill Ryan, who was assisting Father Whelan, charmed wary Gold Hill city officials to obtain a land-use variance. At one point, he told the council that the local flora might flourish with a good dose of holy water. The councilors laughed and OK’d the proposal.

In early 1983, workers completed a 3,800-square-foot building that served as a residence for Augustinian friars and had space for meetings, prayer and dining. Centerpiece of the main building is a large, open-beamed dining hall with a fireplace and garden views. A library offers spiritual reading.

The retreat house immediately began welcoming guests for retreats and conferences with themes such as life in the Holy Spirit, spiritual healing and recovering from divorce.

In its first year, St. Rita welcomed more than 100 marchers who were walking from Ashland to Grants Pass to protest at a plant that made a part for military missiles.

The second building, with 16 guest rooms, was completed later.

The retreat house has hosted Engaged Encounter and Marriage Encounter, an annual men’s retreat, an annual women’s retreat and a youth workshop on fear and faith. Other weekends focused on the power of love, the Holy Land or silence.

The property, owned by the Archdiocese of Portland, runs on an old monastic motto: ora et labora, prayer and work. Volunteers come regularly to build rock walls, plant flowers, prune shrubs and pull weeds. The Knights of Columbus are especially helpful with manpower.

Father Fister notes the workers have a “a spirit of camaraderie and spirituality.”

One day, Curt Swift serves meals to people who are homeless; the next, he’s up at St. Rita’s fixing stairs, adding lights or tending the water tanks, even in the snow.

Swift, a member of Sacred Heart in Medford, is a fix-it man who uses his God-given skills to help the retreat site stay in order. He wishes more would give St. Rita a try.

“A lot of people are in awe when they come up here,” Swift said. “Their minds open up and they get closer to God.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org