On Sept. 20, a quiet email was sent to supporters of The Priory Retreat House in Chestertown from its board of directors: “We are writing to tell you that, as of the end of September, we will cease to operate The Priory as a retreat house.”

The long fight to maintain The Priory as an independent center for retreats is over. But board president Peter Hart told The Evangelist that hope remains: “We have made it ready for whatever its next reincarnation will be.”

The retreat house, situated on 100 wooded acres in the Adirondack Park, came into being in the 1970s, founded as a contemplative Benedictine monastery by two priests of the Albany Diocese. From the start, it offered retreats and communal prayer; by the late ’80s, it had evolved into a full-time retreat house.

Guests came for faith-based retreats and spiritual direction, communed with nature and hiked trails to nearby ponds, gardens and natural springs. The Priory’s famous “world’s largest (private) garage sale,” held every July, spanned two days and drew thousands of shoppers.

Run for decades by Sisters Constance Messitt, CSJ, and Francesca Gilchrist, CSJ, along with clergy, religious and lay associate staff members, The Priory weathered many changes in the Church that other retreat houses in the Diocese did not survive. It operated on a budget of just $100,000 per year.

Climate changes

Through the decades, its focus became more ecumenical, with yoga, book groups and marriage-enrichment days offered alongside traditional retreats.

Sister Fran’s retirement was followed in 2015 by Sister Connie’s, and a “Keep the Priory” fundraising campaign was begun with the twin goals of keeping the retreat house financially viable and finding new, younger leaders who would attract a more youthful crowd.

That leadership came when The Priory hired new executive director Dustin Katona and his wife, Lanni Lantto, who served as associate director. The couple moved from upper Michigan to Warren County with their infant son, Satori, to lead the retreat house.

Mr. Katona hoped to offer more family- and young adult-centered retreats. He began a “Faith in Film” series and offered what Mrs. Lantto termed “undirected quiet weekends” to help people reflect on life and faith in silence. The couple also worked hard to renew the facility and surrounding property.

Mr. Hart said he personally enjoyed the weekly vespers services offered by Mr. Katona and Mrs. Lantto. But the decline in retreatants The Priory had been experiencing for years only continued.

Can’t keep going

“It’s difficult,” remarked Mr. Hart, who’d become involved with The Priory along with his wife when they moved to the Diocese. “We had a vision we could not accomplish.”

The board and the directors concluded that The Priory could no longer afford to operate as a retreat house.

In the email announcement, board members declared that The Priory had always been “a place of refuge from the cares and challenges of everyday life,” and said they are “thankful to have no debt and a small reserve fund” as they ponder “this next stage in the life of The Priory.”

Mr. Hart asserted that “the property and building and grounds still have a mission,” although “we’re not sure what that’s going to be.”

A final garage sale was held as Mr. Katona and Mrs. Lantto prepared to return to Michigan. In the meantime, The Priory’s board has begun reaching out to various monastic communities, hoping the retreat house can return to its roots as a home for contemplative men or women.

Sweet sorrow

“It is with sweet sorrow that my family and I part ways with these sacred acres,” Mr. Katona told supporters in announcing The Priory’s closure. “Thank you for supporting my family and helping us care for this place, this gift from God: our beloved Priory, the land and the many creatures living on it. They are all Christ’s, and we entrust them to His care. Peace be upon the Earth and upon your hearts.”

Back when Sister Connie was retiring, she had the same hope. She told The Evangelist at that time that “people find God in nature — and sometimes that’s the only place they can find God. I would like to hand this over to people who can keep this a sacred space.”

(To inquire about The Priory, call Mr. Hart at 518-494-7429. Other information is available at www.prioryretreathouse.org.)