The history of Capuchin Retreat begins about 1949. Fr. Lawrence Metten, Capuchin, was Spiritual Assistant to the Lay Franciscans at St. Bonaventure in Detroit (the Third Order). He felt the need for a place where the Lay Franciscans could go for spiritual renewal and retreats. They set about collecting funds and searching for a place. By 1955 they were able to secure the Kuhn Mansion in St. Clair, Michigan. With great effort and great promotion by Fr. Lawrence and the Lay Franciscans it soon became a thriving year-round Retreat Center. It was called St. Lawrence Retreat House, named after the great Capuchin preacher, St. Lawrence of Brindisi. It was also situated on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
After some years, it proved to be quite inadequate as a Retreat House. There were three or four retreatants to a room and a limited number of bathrooms. Two other houses used were some distance from the main House. In 1964, the Capuchin Provincial Minister and the Provincial Council decided to build a more adequate House. Fr. Simon Hesse, Capuchin, was given the job of raising the money, designing the house, and supervising construction.
The Archdiocesan realtor steered us to a property owned by Art Zaske, a pious Lutheran. He was pleased that his property would be used for a religious purpose and not a subdivision. The initial plan called for about thirty acres. But Mr. Zaske foresaw the development of the area and suggested ninety acres to ensure sufficient privacy. He even lowered the price.
The property consisted of 35 wooded acres, a 20-acre corn field with no trees, a 20-acre hay field with no trees and 20 acres of pasture land. The house was built in the corn field. That following year marked the beginning of tree planting. The original plan called for 75 rooms. But in the 1960s there was among the Friars much opposition to building a Retreat House. Retreats were considered a thing of the past and had no future in the “New Church.” As a result, the decision was made to stay within the initial budget and not leave the Province with a large debt. The Retreat House was built with 50 rooms with the hope of more rooms at a later date. Incredibly, the cost of construction would increase 200 percent in the next two years.
The first retreat was held in June 1968. Then the retreats that were scheduled for St. Clair were shifted to the new house. A major advance for the new house came in 1973 when Fr. Vernon Wagner, Capuchin, became Retreat Director. Through his efforts, the number of retreats and retreatants more than doubled. For fourteen years, by personal physical work he turned the barren fields into a place of great natural beauty as it is today, a place where one can easily sense the presence of God reflected in the beauty of nature.
Capuchin Retreat joyfully celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 with a blessing and re-dedication led by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton.