Director of Youth Ministry
It is the middle of winter in early 2009, and I am walking along the snow covered paths of the Jesuit Spiritual Center wondering at how it was that I had been led back to this place. Light is seeping through thick clumps of wet branches, and the silence strengthens the crunch of each footstep.
I am only a few days into my first official job as Associate Director of Youth Ministry, a role that I feel woefully under-prepared to assume. I think of the many young men and women who have traversed this ground before me, asking what I can only imagine are the same questions that now echo through my heart:
"Why have you brought me here?"
"Where am I going?"
"What could you possibly desire from me?"
And amidst it all I marvel at the eerie beauty that welcomes me.
On the morning of the twentieth of August, 1925, at 9 A.M., a train pulled out of Union Station, St. Louis, carrying two Jesuit priests and a group of novices. That same night, Father Hubert Brockman, Brother William Thirolf, and a number of Cincinnati businessmen motored through a heavy downpour of rain to Baltimore and Ohio station to meet the St. Louis train. At 9:30 P.M., the novice master, Father William Mitchell, his socius, Father Francis O’Hern, twenty-seven Scholastic novices and one novice Brother, sat down to the first community dinner in the erstwhile dance hall. At eleven o’clock the community retired, the Fathers and Brothers sleeping in the rock mansion.
“Next morning the heavens were clear,” reported one of the novices, “and we found ourselves located in a park surpassing in beauty anything we had anticipated.”
– Albert J. Labuhn, SJ
"I may not have a plan right now, but I know there is a plan for me." It is a mantra that I keep reminding the students who come here, and one that I also am doing my best to remind myself. At 23, I don't find much time to contemplate my future. Instead I am caught up in the moments of ministry: budding relationships, heartening sacraments, whimsical storytelling, and infectious wisdom.
I can't see the forest for the trees just yet, and at this point I'm not sure that I even want to; I'm just amazed that I am here, taking every opportunity to warm myself by the fire of the Spirit.
William T. Irwin, along with his father-in-law Dr. George B. Orr, purchase the estate, hiring a large number of men to construct a new home out of stones hauled from the Little Miami River. The estate is named “Ripples” after the sound the river water made washing over the rocks.
As part of his new Summer Estate, Irwin orders the construction of barns, a pavilion, green house, ice house, and windmill. Four men work the farm, along with 2-3 gardeners, a coachman, and a stable-boy. Horses, a poney, cows, and chickens round out the well-regulate farm.
“Mr. and Mrs. Irwin liked to entertain, once hosting four hundred guests at their party. The Tafts, Procters, and other noted Cincinnati families came out frequently. At every party, of course, there was music.” – Ms. Mary Fitzgerald
Following Mrs. Irwin’s death in 1921, William, his daughter, and her husband remained for two more years, making several improvements to the property before placing it for sale.
Walter Schmidt, a Cincinnati realtor and close friend of the Jesuits, negotiates the purchase of the Ripples estate from Anna Louise Irwin Baldwin (William’s daughter) for $94,000 on behalf of St. Xavier College. It is to be the site of a new Jesuit Novitiate.
Following the construction over the summer of a temporary two story frame building, Fr. John Neenan and Brother Francis Schwackenberg arrive to open the doors of the new novitiate. Three days later they are joined by the first group of novices.
October 2 witnessed the blessing of the house, chapel, and statues, and that same night twenty-one novices began the first Long Retreat at Ripples.
The Leibold-Farrell Building Company begins excavations for the permanent Novitiate Building which is completed the following year.
Father Joseph Kiefer, after leading laymen’s retreats at Elet Hall on the St. Xavier College campus for six years, helps to transfer the retreats to Milford’s “rock house,” as the novices had termed the then unoccupied buildings. Father Thomas J. Moore was appointed as the first full-time director of the new retreat center.
My path takes me back towards an old stone house standing tall next to a run-down shed. I peek in the windows and wonder how long this place has sat empty, patiently waiting to be filled with music, good food, laughter, and dancing. There have been so many times my own soul has felt like this place: blanketed by a cold despair, but eagerly awaiting a fresh spring, a resurrection. I am finding myself adrift in memories of my experiences in college at the Dorothy Day House on the campus of Xavier University, and the many nights of shared prayer over community potlucks with a few shabby instruments and the mirth of young friends. I think about our shared commitment to actively pursuing our faith beyond the borders of our church walls, to accompanying one another through the struggles and successes of 'adulting', and pursuing justice and mercy in the heart of the American Empire. I hunger for more of those spirit-meals.
The Rock House has been home to hundreds of companions over its 90+ years. It has played an integral role as a retreat for ministers studying Ignatian Spirituality, honing their skills in the art of spiritual direction and servant leadership. Today the internship has been reborn as the Ignite Internship, with a mission to kindle within the next generation of ministers the same spirit of generosity, humility, and devotion that guided the earliest Jesuit Companions.
Almost a decade later, a vision I once glimpsed through a cloud has materialized in front of me. The proverbial blood, sweat, and tears of our ministry have nurtured the seeds of a new community on this sacred ground. The echoes of my longings from those early winter days have found harmony within these walls. Yet the refrain I cannot seem to shake is that I don’t deserve this – it’s too good to be true.
One powerful mystery of our youth is struggling with the unbounded grace that God bestows upon us. Our fears and failures urge us to flee from the powerful encounters with love that we experience in the depths of our heart. Much like Jacob, we wrestle with God, hoping against hope that an easy way out might save us from our broken selves. But God desires communion with us, pursues us through the night, and contends with our anger and despair. In outstretched arms of peace we find forgiveness.
So here I am at last: about to embark on my first year as the Director of this incredible program. I am beyond blessed to have been entrusted with this gift, and I am so grateful for the many men and women who have invested so much passion and commitment into laying a foundation for this life-changing ministry.
My prayer for the coming journey lays in simple words and song:
We are traveling across the midwest, spreading the Gospel Message through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
We'd love for you to share in our experience...