The Manresa Story

Visitors to Manresa regularly ask questions about retreats and Jesuits and Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and even, who or what Manresa is named for. The following is a short history of Manresa-Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre. If you find that this history provides too much information for you, simply skip ahead to the section on Frequently Asked Questions by visitors to the centre.

The Earliest Years of Jesuit History and Retreat Work

Since the origin of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit ministries have been rooted in The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. This manual for prayer derives from St. Ignatius’ personal experience. He was injured in battle in Pamplona, Spain in 1521 and carried home to recover. He experienced a conversion during that time and eventually set out on a pilgrimage, which culminated in a vigil at Montserrat, Spain. In his all-night vigil before the Black Madonna in the church of the Benedictine Abbey there, he hung up his sword and dagger. Effectively, his old life was over and his new life had begun. He left Montserrat on 25 March 1522 and soon saw the town of Manresa. He crossed the bridge over the Cardoner River and asked for lodging at a hospital for the poor. In exchange for his bed, Ignatius helped at the Santa Lucia hospital and begged in the town for his food. His plan was to spend a few days at Manresa. That turned into ten months. To this day, many Jesuit retreat houses throughout the world are named for Manresa, precisely because Ignatius’ spiritual experience there was the basis of all Jesuit retreat work. 

Ignatius’ stay in Manresa included intense and prolonged prayer experiences. He spent time in a cave, sometimes praying as much as seven hours a day. Ignatius was given profound insights into himself and about who God was for him. One especially profound visionary experience took place on the banks of the Cardoner River. Ignatius sums it up in his autobiography: “As he sat facing the river the eyes of his understanding were opened and though he saw no vision he understood and perceived many things … He can state that he received such a lucidity in understanding that during the course of his entire life if he were to gather all the helps he received from God and everything he knew, and add them together, he does not think they would add up to all that he received on that one occasion.” Ignatius recorded his experiences in a notebook and would soon find his reflections helpful in guiding others. These jottings, which he continued to revise and expand over the next twenty-five years as he listened to people, became his Spiritual Exercises. They were published in 1548. Ignatius describes their aim early in the text: “exercises which have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” The text is a practical manual aimed at guiding others through a similar yet fully personalized spiritual experience. Many who made the Exercises under Ignatius saw their lives take a radical turn. That is still true today. 

The Growth of the Ministry of the Spiritual Exercises

The experience of Manresa was to shape the remainder of his life. The Ignatian spirituality that evolved from it has, likewise, shaped the lives of many men and women from before the Society of Jesus was formed to the present day. The methodologies used by spiritual directors and guides have evolved over the centuries and Jesuits and their colleagues find increasingly diverse ways to offer the gift of the Exercises to different cultures, ages, backgrounds, and interests. The Exercises have to be interpreted within an unfolding, living tradition. Ignatian spirituality is at the root of the pedagogy and methodology of Jesuit ministries throughout the world. A Jesuit school is Ignatian precisely because it is rooted in the spirituality of St. Ignatius. This is also true of other ministries or apostolates of the Jesuits: universities, parishes, social centres, and so on. There are many ways to give people the gift of Ignatian spirituality. 

The first generation of Jesuits, with Ignatius still among them, realized the gift of the Exercises in carrying out their diverse ministries. John O’Malley, S.J., a noted Jesuit historian, describes the text and its use by Ignatius as “an extraordinarily pliable instrument that could be accommodated to a great variety of circumstances and individuals.” He offers a phrase that was used by a contemporary of Ignatius: Multiplex est modus tradendi Exercitia. Juan de Polanco, S.J., an assistant to Ignatius in overseeing the Jesuits, wrote in a letter of 1554: “Your reverence should not be surprised at Our Father’s [Ignatius] strong insistence on this matter of the Exercises. Among all the means used by our Society, this is in a special way the Society’s own.” Early Jesuits used a variety of methods to give people the Exercises. Some had a very brief experience. Others were ready for a retreat of thirty days or more. The Exercises allows for this adaptation and flexibility. At the start of the text, Ignatius offers introductory observations or annotations. Annotations eighteen, nineteen and twenty deal with the diverse ways of giving the Exercises. Annotation eighteen says that the Exercises should be “adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is to his age, education, and talent. Thus exercises that he could not easily bear, or from which he would derive no profit, should not be given to one with little natural ability or of little physical strength.” Annotation nineteen deals with those who are educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business. They should take just a short time each day for the Exercises. Annotation twenty deals with “one who is more disengaged, and desirous of making as much progress as possible.” This person is able to withdraw from their affairs, go into solitude or retreat, and progress through the full version of the Exercises. 

The Rise of Retreat Houses

The early Jesuits found that it was best for individuals to leave familiar surroundings and occupations for a complete immersion in the Exercises. O’Malley points out that finding accommodations was a challenge. Retreatants could lodge and take food at a local monastery or convent. Men could come see the Jesuit for spiritual direction or counselling in his room. For women, for reasons of propriety, it was more challenging. One option was a confessional in the church. Eventually the early Jesuits set aside a few rooms in the larger houses of schools. This worked for men, but was inappropriate for female retreatants. In 1533, the Jesuits built their first building specifically for housing men doing the Exercises. It was at the college in Alcalá, Spain. At Alcalá there was sometimes a waiting list of up to twenty. Similar houses were built elsewhere. The men who lodged in Jesuit houses paid for their food and drink, but not for the direction they received. 

The early Jesuits found increasing ways to offer the gift of the Exercises, such as to many of the students in Jesuit schools. When the Collegio Germanico in Rome was expanded in 1563, it included rooms for outsiders who wanted to make retreats. Thus, it became the first “retreat house” in Rome. People had many reasons for wanting to make retreats: discernment about a life choice, to learn how to pray, to move further in their spiritual lives, or to reform their lives. The Jesuit guiding the retreatant was expected to get to know the individual as best he could, so that he could accommodate the Exercises to the person’s particular needs and desires. O’Malley points out that the guide’s function was threefold. “He acted sometimes as a teacher – about some point of doctrine or about practical matters, such as how to pray. He engaged in a devout conversation by listening attentively and then giving spiritual counsel, paying special attention to movements of consolation and desolation. He briefly and objectively proposed points for prayer and meditation, as the text prescribes.” The person who led others in the Exercises eventually came to be known as the “director”. That remains the normal term although Ignatius never used that term. He speaks of the one who gives the Exercises, or hands them on to another. Ignatius saw the relationship between the retreatant and the guide as conversational. He gave cautions in the text of the Exercises about the guide’s role. An image he offers in the Annotations, or introductory observations, is a balance at equilibrium. “The director of the Exercises, as a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to one side or the other, should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his Creator and Lord. In other words, the guide should not interfere with someone’s relationship with God. This immediate action of God on the individual is what underlies the Exercises. That delicate balance is only achieved with careful discernment on the part of the guide. Ignatius warned in conversations about how much spiritual guides harmed others by insisting that they follow in their ways.

The Years After St. Ignatius

In the early years, the Jesuits who were seen as suitable guides learned at the feet of other experienced Jesuits. Ignatius certainly played this role while he was still alive. Many Jesuits sought his advice and supervision. O’Malley describes what happened after Ignatius was no longer around. There were opposing views about how to give the Exercises and who should get them. One side insisted on the need to accommodate the Exercises to the individual and his or her situation. The other “stood for a more literal application of the details of the text and took as its norm a theoretical ideal of spiritual proficiency.” He adds that many of the patterns of practice initiated by Ignatius “began to change or deteriorate shortly after his death.” O’Malley mentions two. Fewer women made the Exercises than before, possibly because of stricter ecclesiastical regulations about how to deal with women in general. The other was to have a greater impact on the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises until the middle of the twentieth century. O’Malley sums it up: “Despite the concern about careful selection of directors, their quality generally declined, and numerous complaints were heard about too literal, too mechanical interpretations of the text.” In a similar vein, Michael Ivens, S.J., a British Jesuit, says that many of the Jesuits after Ignatius had “positions [on the Exercises] which seriously distort Ignatius’ own views.” 

An apt caricature of the way in which the Exercises were handed on for much of Jesuit history is found in the James Joyce novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The novel is an oblique self-portrait of the writer himself. Jesuits at both Clongowes and Belvedere in Ireland educated Joyce. On a three-day retreat at school, Stephen Dedalus and the other students are offered strong and fiery sermons about sin, judgment and hell. Father Arnall offers some thoughts on the four last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. Deeply shaken, Stephen resolves to rededicate himself to a life of Christian piety. After the first sermon, we read: “So he had sunk to the state of a beast that licks his chaps after meat. This was the end; and a faint glimmer of fear began to pierce the fog of his mind.” By the second day of the retreat, “the faint glimmer of fear became a terror of spirit as the hoarse voice of the preacher blew death into his soul.” By the sermon on hell, Stephen was shaking and trembling. 

The Early Twentieth Century

Over the centuries, the Ignatian retreat had lost the personalized adaptation that it was known for in the time of Ignatius. Preached retreats were the norm, and, even those gave selected sections of the Exercises, all too often focusing on the material James Joyce would have been exposed to. The 1918 Code of Canon Law institutionalized the practice of an annual retreat for religious and suggested retreats for other members of the faithful. By the twentieth century the practice of the weekend retreat for laymen was spreading throughout the Christian world. Pope Pius XI declared St. Ignatius the patron of all Spiritual Exercises in 1922. There was a new and growing interest in the theology of the Exercises. Then a revolution occurred, leading to the rebirth of the ways of handing on the Exercises. Canadian Jesuits played a pivotal role in this rebirth. The rebirth was actually a return to the original method of Ignatius: accompanying individuals through the Spiritual Exercises. Manresa is a beneficiary of the new creativity that started in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Manresa: Toronto to Pickering 

The roots of Manresa-Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre in Pickering, Ontario go back to the desires of Catholic laymen in Toronto to experience an Ignatian retreat. The first laymen’s retreat in Toronto was held Labour Day weekend of 1925 at Saint Augustine’s Seminary in Scarborough. Senator Frank O’Connor was the organizer and thirteen men signed up. John M. Filion, S.J. and Joseph Fallon, S.J. were the directors. Other retreats followed during holiday periods when space was available at St. Augustine’s, at Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland and at the Jesuit Seminary at 403 Wellington Street West in downtown Toronto. In 1940 one wing of the Seminary was converted so that retreats could be held also during the winter months. By the mid-forties the number of retreatants was growing. By now, the men had organized themselves as the Catholic Laymen’s Retreat Association and were guided by James O’G Fleming, S.J., who had been named the group’s director in 1939.  

Fleming wrote to John L. Swain, S.J., Provincial Superior, explaining the need for a retreat house to serve the Archdiocese of Toronto. His letter of 9 June 1946 explains that, “There is no doubt that we need a suitable place for our retreats. We have been over twenty years in retreat work in the Archdiocese and the progress in the movement is scarcely in proportion. The chief reason for our failure is the lack of a House.” Among the reasons behind the lack of a permanent location until 1946 was the financial instability from the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. By 1946 it was feasible to think of a permanent location. A search ended with the purchase of a spacious home in Erindale (near Bayview and Lawrence Avenues in Toronto). This was the first real home for Manresa. It opened in November of that year with accommodations for eighteen retreatants. No sooner had they moved in than planning began for an extension. However the decision was taken to relocate to larger quarters. Erindale was near a recreation area, was too noisy, and the traffic was increasing. A suitable property was located in Pickering. At that time the property in Pickering had 107 acres and several buildings. The property was known as Clarendon Wood and was named for Lord Hyde who in 1914 became the Sixth Earl of Clarendon. He and his family lived in what we call Manresa Manor. With the outbreak of World War I the family returned to England. Clarendon Wood changed hands twice before the Laymen’s Retreat Association of the Archdiocese purchased it in 1949. 

Erindale was used from 1946 to 1949. The final retreat there took place on 25-27 November 1949. A week later retreats started in Pickering. The first retreat at the new location had nineteen men on retreat directed by Joseph L. Clarke, S.J. Donations for the weekend amounted to $198.00, an average of $10.42 per retreatant. Then, as now, there was no fixed fee, each retreatant making a freewill offering. A retreatant from the early days offers his recollections. “You had to share rooms. The beds were no good. The rooms were cold. The food was served to you in big bowls. The last person at the table usually walked away hungry. There was no kitchen where you could have a coffee or tea throughout the day or night. But the spiritual retreat was great. I guess that is why I continued to make this an annual must for myself.” 

Manresa grew and prospered with improvements and additions to the buildings and a strengthened program. On 27 July 1965, Fleming wrote to the Provincial Superior Angus J. MacDougall, S.J., about the growing desire for women’s retreats. “We are receiving many requests from men and women for women’s retreats.” He was asking permission to hold at least twelve retreats for women each year, since experience showed that there was a legitimate appeal. Fleming had earlier written to Archbishop Philip Pocock, asking the same permission, mentioning that the men who made retreats “wish our wives and relatives to make their retreats at Manresa.” The first retreats ended up taking place late in 1965. In 1968 Manresa ran the first month-long Institute for the Spiritual Renewal for Religious. Manresa also offered retreats for particular groups: parishes, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Women’s League, lawyers, doctors, the police, the unemployed, youth groups and language groups. 

In the late sixties the fallout from the Second Vatican Council was being felt in every area of Catholic life. Retreats in the traditional sense began losing their popular appeal. The number of weekend retreatants at Manresa dropped to its lowest point in more than twenty years, leveling off at 680 people for the year. Gradually the numbers began to climb again and continue to be strong. 

From dealing with so many retreatants, Fleming became aware of the serious effects of alcohol abuse on individuals and the impact on their families. He attended the inaugural meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in Toronto and later addressed their first national convention. As early as 1946 Manresa’s yearly schedule included retreats for alcoholics. A.A. and Twelve Steps retreats became a regular addition to Manresa in 1958. 

Fleming was also the National Secretary for the Sodality of Our Lady (now reorganized and known as Christian Life Communities – CLC). There was in 1933 the establishment of a General Secretariat for the Sodality of Our Lady. It was located at the Jesuit Seminary on Wellington St. A group of Manresa associates formed such a Sodality whose principal activity was recruiting new retreatants. They would meet regularly for spiritual guidance and to discuss the retreat apostolate. Fleming died suddenly in January 1973. The thousands of people who remembered him came forward and the Men of Manresa launched the Fleming Memorial Fund to perpetrate his memory. The main building was dedicated to him as Fleming Hall.

James J. Farrell, S.J. was already the superior at Manresa. With Fleming’s sudden death, he assumed additional responsibilities at Manresa and was assisted by the work of Jesuits on the team, especially those who served as director of programming. Dikran Islemeci, S.J. replaced Farrell in 1988. Within a couple of years, John Egli O’Brien, S.J. replaced him. His is a name synonymous with Manresa’s recent decades. He served two terms as Director and ensured that Manresa was on solid financial ground. He was first appointed Director of Manresa in May 1990. He solicited funding for a new chapel. A ground- breaking ceremony was held on 25 September 1994 and the completed St. Ignatius Loyola Chapel was dedicated on 10 September 1995. O’Brien continued in the role until 2001. He was pastorally present to many people. He was at his best in welcoming lay people and helping them in their spiritual struggles. O’Brien was a peerless fund-raiser and found great support from the Knights of Columbus. 

William J. Wilson, S.J. was named the new Director. He was known for offering creative retreats. O’Brien replaced him several years later, in 2005, first as Acting-Director and then Director. O’Brien was then in his early eighties, but had the energy and skill to deal with the issues that had emerged since his first departure. He once again placed the retreat house on solid financial ground and expanded the retreat programs. Scott M. Lewis, S.J. became the Director in September 2008, after O’Brien’s second term. Lewis was on the faculty of Regis College in Toronto, specializing in New Testament and had offered weekend retreats at Manresa. Once he was named the Dean, he was too busy to continue at Manresa. 

Michael A. Coutts, S.J, replaced him in 2014. Fr. Henk van Meijel, S.J. replaced Fr. Coutts in mid-May 2018. He is working carefully with the Board of Directors and volunteers in looking at the possibility of a new building, to replace the aging Fleming Hall. He is also working creatively to bring Manresa more in line with the needs of the 21st century and the priorities and preferences of the worldwide Society of Jesus. He is also trying to foster a strong sense of team among the people most involved with the care of Manresa.

It’s not widely known, but Manresa works with high school students. This spiritual formation of young people has affected 32,000 high school students, mostly from the Durham region. We are currently in conversations about how to use the resources of this land and our expertise to find ever more creative ways to serve diverse youth, including those who are often among the marginalized. We would do this in line with the newest apostolic preferences of the Jesuits throughout the world.  

The work of Manresa continues to thrive. Several thousand individuals each year benefit from Ignatian retreats, twelve-step retreats, other programs, and the hosting of various faith groups. Like most institutions its age, it has had peaks and declines. The buildings are aging and so they require constant attention. The Jesuit Director has always been able to rely upon other Jesuits and committed laywomen and men. The history of Manresa continues to evolve, with the facilities and team finding ever more ways to help with the spiritual life of the men and women who come for retreats.  

Fr. Philip Shano, S.J. prepared this brief history of Manresa and the Frequently Asked Questions. It is an excerpt of a detailed history of the spirituality centres of the English-Canadian Jesuits, with the material on Manresa expanded. The longer history is published as The Birth and Growth of the Spiritual Exercises, by Philip Shano, S.J. and appears as Chapter 1 in Conscience of a Nation: Jesuits in English Canada 1842-2016. That was published by Novalis in 2017 and is Volume 3 of a detailed look at the ministry of the Jesuits in English Canada.

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