The Villa Saint Martin has been a retreat centre in Montreal since 1953. Photo courtesy Villa Saint Martin

$20-million Jesuit centre nurtures religious roots

  • September 22, 2023

With the purchase of a new property in 2021 and ambitious plans for development, Canadian Jesuits are hoping to buck the trend of closures and contraction experienced by Quebec Catholic institutions over the past 50 years.

Fr. Kevin Kelly SJ was sent to Montreal from Toronto in the summer of 2020, tasked by his provincial with assessing the continued suitability of the Villa Saint Martin, the 100-year-old, grey-stone building the Jesuits had run as a retreat centre since 1953.

It didn’t take long for Kelly and his team of consultants to conclude that it was time to make a move.

The urban landscape around the Villa has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. The location on the banks of the Rivière des Prairies once provided the quiet environment required for spiritual retreats, but the construction of high-rise condominiums across the river in Laval and the attendant increase in car and boat traffic has meant the riverside spot is no longer a calm oasis.

There are now two marinas near the Old Villa, says Kelly, and “from mid-May to almost October, it’s just party boats and super loud and completely not a tranquil, peaceful retreats kind of environment.”

The other issue Kelly confronted was the state of the building and the expected cost of upgrading the site to meet the needs of the modern retreatant.

“We’re not looking to build some lavish hotel,” says Kelly, “but people do need, because of age or other issues, simple but private bathrooms in the bedroom, and they want more prayer and oratory chapel space.”

It didn’t take long for a solution to be found. The Sisters of the Holy Cross had been looking to sell their property, located 17 kilometers along the river to the west, for at least five years. Once the Jesuits expressed interest, a deal was quickly brokered.

The new property, adjacent to a large nature reserve, is “absolutely perfect in terms of sound and peacefulness,” says Kelly.

Kelly and a small staff took over the Ermitage Sainte-Croix, now dubbed the New Villa, in the summer of 2021. The retreat centre was not truly operational until the end of 2022, largely because of COVID restrictions, but has been busy ever since.

“The demand has been so great,” says Kelly, “but we were able to kind of catch a rhythm. Even though we’ve only been at the place for a little bit over a year, we’re way beyond the occupancy we ever imagined.”

Those coming to the Villa are participatants in silent retreats hosted by the Ignatian Spirituality Centre of Montreal, 12-step groups as well as some non-Christian groups.

“In terms of numbers, about 25 per cent of our occupancy is our Ignatian silent retreats held throughout the year, that is, the eight-day, five-day or three-day retreats, that take place always in silence. The other 75 per cent are entirely groups related to our mission. Most of those are 12-step groups or trauma groups that are working through trauma related issues and connecting that to spirituality.”

Kelly notes that some of the groups who first approached the Villa originally looking for space to host events that were “spiritual but not religious” are now returning with enquiries about more formal religious rites like the Catholic Mass.

“We are seeing that demographic returning a little bit to explore not just their spiritual traditions, but their religious roots.”

With the obvious demand placed upon their space and services, Kelly and the team at the Ignatian Spirituality Center are laying plans for renovation and expansion.

Early 2024 has been set as the target date for having the architectural blueprints in hand and the launch of a capital campaign.

Kelly says that “the new centre is going to have a much more of a retreat house feel.”

“We’re moving away from what was very common in the ’70s and ’80s and returning to something that allows much more personal prayer space as opposed to multipurpose rooms. The chapel will be a chapel, the oratory will be an oratory, the spiritual direction rooms will be spiritual direction rooms.”

In addition to the chapel and oratories, there are plans to make 65 rooms available, all with private bathrooms.

Kelly says construction will take place in phases and will begin before the capital campaign is completed. Though the final amounts have not been determined, he estimates the total cost will be approximately $20 million.

“The sale of the Old Villa will contribute significantly to these renovations. We also have a number of religious communities that are already partnering with us.  We’re projecting somewhere around $8 million of that will be fundraised.”

One part of the project that is central to the Jesuit retreat mission is the creation of community housing connected to the mandate of the Spiritual Transformation in Recovery (STIR) retreats, another Jesuit initiative.

“We’re going to have 16 community-staff employee spaces,” says Kelly, “which will include a dedicated space specifically for men and women who are already in their recovery journey, sober from eight to 12 months who want community.”

Though the story began with the sale of buildings belonging to religious congregations, the tale of the two Villas does not seem to end with closure and contraction but with expansion and renewal.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.