A statue of St. Dominic greets retreatants. It was carved from cedar by chainsaw artist Bill Tower and dedicated August 2005. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
A statue of St. Dominic greets retreatants. It was carved from cedar by chainsaw artist Bill Tower and dedicated August 2005. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
St. Benedict Lodge, about an hour east of Eugene, might as well be in Avalon, it feels so isolated and idyllic.

There are sun-shafted forests and meadows punctuated with Stations of the Cross. But mostly there is the sparkling river. “Where these waters flow they refresh; everything lives where the river goes” (Ezek. 47:9).

This is what draws groups here — from Alcoholics Anonymous to high schools, from spiritual retreats to family reunions — to fill its scores of rooms.

“We are purposefully putting our students in a place of natural beauty,” said Don Clarke, director of campus ministry at Jesuit High School in Portland. He said that’s been especially important for the past 10 years or so. In those years ecological issues have become ever more central to understanding faith, especially for young people.

Jesuit did not send students in 2020 because of the pandemic, but made up for that in 2021, sending not only juniors but also seniors on a version of the Junior Encounter.

Clarke remembers one young woman who got off the bus and exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m at St. Benedict!”

Those 2021 retreats came on the heels of the Labor Day fires of 2020. The Holiday Farm Fire, which burned more than 173,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes, came within a couple miles of St. Benedict Lodge, which is near the settlement of McKenzie Bridge. Many of the families who attend Mass at its chapel lost their homes.

Retreatants traveling Highway 126 in 2021 especially witnessed the devastation.

“The town of Blue River was gone, except for a single house,” Clarke said.

Jesuit sends seven Junior Encounter student retreats to St. Benedict annually, plus a faculty retreat and a parent retreat. They’ve been doing so for 27 years.

“Our history is attached to it,” Clarke said. “When students sit in the chairs there they know their fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles sat there too.”

Marist High School in Eugene has been sending students on retreat at St. Benedict even longer.

Rick Martin, longtime director of campus ministry and formation at Marist, said St. Benedict’s massive stone fireplace and the sight of the McKenzie River, tumbling and racing by outside the windows, are most iconic for him.

Martin wrote in 2018 that St. Benedict had hosted Marist Encounters for most of the last 44 years, “amounting to nearly 5,000 members of the Marist community sitting in these chairs, before this fireplace, sharing the view and the sound of the river outside, and finding a miraculous encounter with self, others and God.”

In an essay for Marist Magazine, Martin shared eloquent statements of faith from students who wrote about their Encounter retreat.

“I remember being in a bad place mentally during that part of the year,” one student shared. “I was depressed and did not feel loved or like I truly mattered. The encounter changed that. I saw the truth, that I was truly loved.”

“Whenever I think about my faith, the McKenzie automatically comes to mind,” wrote another.

Yet another student wrote how the forest that surrounds St. Benedict and the overhead clouds create a sense of enclosure. “This felt like an embrace from the Lord Himself.”

More recently Martin described the lodge as having a rustic, yet warm and comfortable feeling. “There’s a striking sense of withdrawing from the world,” he said. “You immediately acclimate to the spiritual pace there, and the experience of kairos, God’s sense of time, where everyday time passing is suspended.”

If this were a hotel, there would be dozens of employees to care for all the rooms, the kitchen, the library, and the 70 acres surrounding its buildings.

Amazingly, that work is mostly done by two Dominicans, one fulltime employee, a secretary, volunteers and the groups themselves.

“We take care of it with glue and masking tape,” joked Dominican Father David Geib a few years ago. Father David, now in Oakland, California, was on staff at the lodge for many years and had first come to St. Benedict as a Dominican novice.

The retreat center works because the groups who come do their share of work to pass along the good spirit to the next group. This is a place of simplicity and retreat, not a place to be pampered. And the price is right.

If your group can get in, that is.

St. Benedict Lodge’s typical retreatants are repeat customers who return annually. And it’s not only Catholic groups who come.

Linda Finley, a minister with the Center for Spiritual Living in Eugene, said her group comes for the river. “The accommodations are simple, there is adequate room for meetings, but the primary reason we come is for the river,” she said. “It feels like the most sacred place in the world. You can’t help but feel God wherever you are on the grounds.”

Finley said Dominican Father Thomas DeMan, the lodge’s former chaplain, may have said it best. “He always said he had never delivered or heard a sermon as good as the one the river delivers every day of the week and every week of the year,” she remembered.

Each retreat group or individual cooks for themselves with food they bring. They clean the big kitchen, so that the next retreatants will walk into a clean place to prep and cook.

Clarke has enjoyed working with the Dominicans at St. Benedict over the years. The Jesuit retreats take place on eight or nine weekends every year, and “use every inch” of space the lodge has to offer, typically bringing 80 retreatants.

Clarke, like Martin and Finley, loves the river. He always tells students it’s the rocks that make the river noisy — and how faith is like that too, with the Holy Spirit surrounding us when the living waters of God are made noisy by the rocks in our lives.

 



Learn more

56630 North Bank Rd., McKenzie Bridge, 97413

541-822-3572

sblodge@opwest.org

St. Benedict Lodge is available for both group and personal retreats. It is used by only one group at a time and can accommodate up to 82. Daily Mass is offered if a priest is on site, with confession, counseling and spiritual direction similarly available.